Two games into the season, Mark McKenzie made the bench for the first time in game three at Colorado.A week later he was on the Talen Energy Stadium bench for the first time as as a first team player. Six days after that? First MLS minutes.
After five of those minutes -- he entered as an injury substitute for Jack Elliott in the 52nd - McKenzie made his first incomplete pass as a professional. Thirty-seven minutes later, he made his second.
In between, the teenaged MLS debutant made 28 completions in a row, include a long pass out of the box to CJ Sapong and a wonderful cross-field ball to Matt Real. Orlando was already up 2-0, but they only took two shots after McKenzie joined the match; one was blocked. The second shot was a sliding effort over the bar by Dom Dwyer inside the six yard box. On the play, Justin Meram slips by Keegan Rosenberry on the Union right and he's able to race up the wing unimpeded before lacing a cross into Dwyer's path. McKenzie was over ten yards away from Rosenberry when Meram initially popped free, so he was in no-man's land with Dwyer cutting inside of Auston Trusty. The rookie had, essentially, been taken out of the play.
In his first professional season, less than a year from when he could legally watch rated-R movies, Mark McKenzie was capable of playing like a top tier veteran. He was also fully capable of, at times, playing like a teenager with less than 2000 minutes under his belt. You can focus on the rookie mistakes -- and his coaches surely have and will this offseason as they look to take him to the next level -- or, optimist that you are, you can focus on his class, but the most informative thing to focus on is Mark McKenzie's growth. He still made positional errors (and his loose dribbling led to the penalty that birthed the double-reds against Atlanta), but by the end of the season McKenzie was making adjustments to his play in-game.
This is how he coped with Angelo Rodriguez's surprising strength, and this is how he accounted for Bradley Wright-Phillips. After August 4th, the only teams that beat the Union were those that scored within the first half-hour (except New York Red Bulls who scored on a surprising penalty call after a surprising decision to refer to Video Assisted Replay). Of course, that was the match when McKenzie and Trusty held Bradley Wright-Phillips without a single touch in the box. McKenzie might start with some uncertainty, but it rarely lasted past that first 30 minutes, and the Union defense improved as a result.
Next season, McKenzie will get the chance to lock down the starting role from opening day. If he plays anything like he did in the CONCACAF Under-20 World Cup qualifiers -- McKenzie was named to the best XI of the tournament -- holding on to his starting berth won't be a problem for the second year center back. But there are no guarantees. Like all talented young players, McKenzie's continued development will be less a matter of talent than of grit, desire, and a willingness to put the head down and work for the team. That's how McKenzie got into the first eleven, and it's what he'll need to do to stay there in 2019.