After a meteoric rise from freshman starter at Wake Forest University to the youngest defense in Major League Soccer to a place in the starting XI in a do-or-die 2018 playoff game, Mark McKenzie had only played 12 minutes of soccer in 2019 before getting his name back onto the top half of the lineup card in late August.
In January, The homegrown defender had been shown leaping and tapping his heels together, jubilant, as he walked to the pitch as a member of a US Men’s National Team gameday roster for the first time. His 12 minute cameo in April came when he replaced fellow homegrown defender Auston Trusty, sent off as the bow on a lackluster 2-0 defeat to Los Angeles Galaxy. A week later, Aurelien Collin was in the lineup for a dominant 3-0 thrashing of Montreal Impact. McKenzie would have started, head coach Jim Curtin explained later, but he had called the night before following an emergency appendectomy.
The next game was the Dawn of Przybylko: The man who would score 14 more got his first in a draw against Vancouver. The Galaxy loss had been a blip; following an 0-2 start, the Union would win 10 of 11 as Trusty regained his spot beside Jack Elliott. McKenzie recovered, worked, struggled, worked, prayed, worked, and waited. When Trusty’s confidence dropped, McKenzie empathized from the bench. And he kept waiting. Curtin turned to Collin once again after Trusty’s nadir, a 4-0 loss to Montreal in which the Union’s postseason credibility also hit a low point. DC United was cathartically flattened and Houston held at arm’s length before Chicago Fire stretched the Union’s shape horizontally and attacked the space around Collin.
McKenzie’s return to the first eleven coincided with the most impressive three-game run of an already-impressive season. DC was once again dispatched with ease, but then defending champs Atlanta United fell and LAFC, bulldozing through the league indiscriminately, was held to a 1-1 draw. With McKenzie starting, even the long-term doubters noticed the Union were capable of exchanging blows with any opponent.
The defender himself would never take credit for raising the team’s ceiling — but having hunted down his second chance he would not let it get away. This time a playoff win. This time a cap at USMNT January camp. This time a healthy preseason. This time, McKenzie won the friendly but fierce battle to be a day one starter.
This time… a pandemic. And so once again McKenzie waited. Once again he worked. And once again he prayed. McKenzie, Jack Elliott, new signing and recent wondergoal scorer Jakob Glesnes, and the experienced Collin were ready to start in July when Major League Soccer returned.
Wearing Tamir Rice’s name on his back, McKenzie got the call. Shutout. The first for the Union in nearly a calendar year; the first for the Union since Auston Trusty lost his starting job. McKenzie had been immense. Alongside Jack Elliott and in front of the sensational Andre Blake, he had battled the heat and New York City FC’s expensive attacking firepower. His pace raised eyebrows, but his game intelligence cued phone calls. Celtic and others saw the prospect becoming the powerhouse, potential calcifying into reality and being replaced with yet more potential.
He was far from perfect, and opponents spotted his need to develop defensively on set plays. But the things he can do now, consistently and with confidence, span an unnerving range of skills. Get close against top attackers in space. Stay on your feet to tackle. Move the defensive line up, step through the man. Look to play through lines, be quick and decisive. Have an ace in your pocket — perhaps a left-footed, cross-field dime or two. Don’t panic under pressure.
There will always be doubters placing outsized importance on, well, size. McKenzie is about 6’0”, short for a center back. Indeed, the position has been the most resistant to imagination. Even as coaches and analysts wax lyrical about ball-playing center backs, few are willing to compromise height to land one.
But change will come. Modern soccer is about transitions and controlling space. It is already accepted that positional nous can overcome size for an attacker in the box (as enshrined in Cahill’s Law), and it will eventually find its way to the center back position.
And Mark McKenzie will wait for it. And he’ll work. And he’ll pray. And he’ll keep getting better.