Numerous offers come across the desk of Philadelphia Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner each week, and as the Union stormed through the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, rumors swirled about standout Homegrowns Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie for the season. Tanner and the Union waited for the right offer and determined to keep the local stars through the season. The 2020 Supporters’ Shield and a record -- the club became the first MLS team to complete two multi-million dollar transfers for homegrown players within a single year – were the rewards.
Speaking with members of the media on Thursday afternoon, Tanner and Head Coach Jim Curtin said that best solution was reached for both the club and McKenzie as the defender leaves not only as a legend but as a champion.
“There was an offer in the summer but I didn’t feel that it was the right time to do it,” Tanner said. “It was before the MLS is Back Tournament and I thought that we could be really competitive after the season we had [in 2019]. We had discussions with Mark and his representatives and luckily it turned out for the best for all of us. We won the Supporters’ Shield and Mark was totally happy and agreed that we did the right decision in the summer.”
“Mark is a Philadelphia Union legend and we know he’ll move on to Europe and do big things,” Curtin said of the 21-year-old. “This is just the start of his career and to do this all at his young age is impressive. Everyone sees the Mark McKenzie on the field for the 90 minutes and just how special he is, hether it’s with Philadelphia Union or the U.S. Men’s National Team. Very few get to see the influence he has shown in our locker room and the growth that he’s shown this year by being such a voice for social change in a time where it was needed.”
K.R.C. Gent might not be known as well in the states but when McKenzie heard that the Belgium side was interested he knew immediately it was an organization that fit both his style of play and the vision he had for his future.
“I’ve known about Genk for a while and I keep in touch with European football and knew about the Leon Bailey transfer, so when they expressed interest I was ultimately excited because of their background and their history,” McKenzie said Thursday. “They develop players, mature them and then transfer them on to the next level and I think that is promising and exciting for me. As a player I know there are holes in my game that I need to clean up and I want to fill and I think stepping into a European environment with Genk presents me the ability to develop and reach my full capabilities as a footballer.”
With McKenzie departing, both Curtin and Tanner said that the club will be looking to bring in a center back this offseason with Tanner preferring a left-footed player to add a feature to the team that the Union haven’t had since the transfer of former homegrown Auston Trusty. Said Tanner, “That is what we are in this moment dealing with, and you can be sure that we’ll probably announce something in the near future.”
“We recognize that center back will be an important position for us and there are things that Mark does that are irreplaceable with the speed to put out fires,” Curtin said on the club restocking the roster for a 2021 Supporters’ Shield defense. “We have now lost two MLS Best XI players at a young age but we have full confidence that the young boys we just signed plus [we have] the veterans that can do their job while getting the most out of those young players. It’s set up now where there is a really strong pipeline of players that are coming in and pushing for minutes.
“We do recognize that we have to find ways to win because the eyes aren’t on your players if you’re a losing franchise. We’ve won several years in a row and we have to sustain that. We’ve lost two really good players but we will do a great job this offseason of bringing in some new faces along with the players that we have established.”