McKenzie's growth has him ready for Europe

He was signed at the same moment David Accam made his surprise move to the club. He was overshadowed by the hype around fellow homegrown star defender Auston Trusty. He was relegated to the bench after injuries and a lack of confidence paused his growth.

But he had the mentality to push through, develop, and earn a chance to shine.

And then shine he did.

Mark McKenzie’s move to Genk is the culmination of an incredible journey from the Union academy to college, and then, in 2020, to the players’ choice as best defender in MLS. And his evolution from stunning athlete with confidence on the ball to mature decision-maker with a stunning passing range will go down as one of the best development stories in modern US soccer.

The knock on McKenzie when he arrived was a classic case of misunderstanding a role. Central defenders are supposed to be tall, hulking monsters that clear the box and intimidate strikers. McKenzie bulked up quickly, but he remained shorter than the typical center back, and so his ceiling was generally seen as lower than it clearly is.

Internally, there was never a question about how much the young defender could achieve. He saw passes between the lines like a midfielder, he was comfortable playing with space behind him, and, most important, he was intelligent and an avid learner.

McKenzie quickly discovered that at the top level, many pressing systems forced center backs to initiate attacks, and that playing on the front foot in back meant turnovers high up the pitch and a shorter field for a transition. He understood far before most young players what it meant to be focused for an entire 90 minutes — ball in play, out of play, start of the half, end of the half, it didn’t matter. When he got his starting role back in late 2019, it was clear that he had decided he would never let it go.

It must also be noted that McKenzie re-entered the lineup in late 2019 in his same role as initiator of attacks, but he was now playing on the left side of defense. That meant hours spent on developing his left foot and re-engineering his mental map to understand the space around him.

Left-sided center backs are sought-after with the same level of fervor as left backs and strikers. So once he made the move and succeeded, it was clear that McKenzie’s rise would not end with a Supporters’ Shield, a MLS Bext XI nod, and a Defender of the Year nomination.

His height became, as it should have always been, an afterthought. Now everyone saw the swagger in a player that could defend in space, physically dominate the box, and spread the field as well as anybody on the US National Team radar.

Mark McKenzie became what he always knew he would be — one of the best in MLS and ready for the next step in his journey.

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