Weston McKennie’s swagger and bravado lifts the ceiling for USA


Weston McKennie may be the most enigmatic player on the U.S. men’s national team. Sometimes dazzling, sometimes maddening and always full of personality, McKennie is capable of reaching heights that few of his team-mates can hit. When he’s at his best, he changes the ceiling for the Americans.

In the 0-0 draw against England, McKennie was close to his top level. The 24-year-old midfielder was excellent during his 77 minutes on the field, using his impressive ability, athleticism and aggressiveness to create several dangerous opportunities in attack and defensively disrupt England.

For the U.S., the night was relatively positive. They didn’t get a win, but they did impress with their performance, unexpectedly controlling the bulk of the match to set up a must-win match with Iran on Tuesday.

“We felt like we dominated the game,” McKennie said. “We had the more clear cut chances. Obviously it sucks that we couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net and come out with the win but the most important thing is that we control the outcome of our journey in this tournament with the last game against Iran.”

McKennie played out wider than usual on Friday, often stationing himself on the right sideline. That was a planned tweak by head coach Gregg Berhalter, who moved the U.S. out of their usual 4-3-3 and put them in more of a straight up 4-4-2. The switch created more space for McKennie, especially in the first half.

A common pattern of play involved right back Sergino Dest sidestepping England winger Raheem Sterling, then finding an open McKennie on the flank. As soon as McKennie received the ball, England left-back Luke Shaw would be forced into a difficult choice: stay with winger Tim Weah and give McKennie time and space, or pressure McKennie and leave the speedy Weah open to run in behind.

“That was something that we saw with their defending in the last game, we wanted to key in on it, basically triple stacking the right side,” Berhalter said. “Serg getting the ball, bypasses his defender, finding Weston free, then Luke Shaw would have that decision to make.”

England manager Gareth Southgate was conscious of the problems those sorts of moves were causing in the first half and adjusted accordingly in the second to apply pressure to McKennie.

Three plays in the first half, though, stood out as emblematic of how the match played out for McKennie and the U.S.

The first came in the 26th minute. Musah, who played well in the 1-1 draw with Wales as well, received a ball with his back to goal in the right side of the area, then quickly played a square pass toward the corner to Dest. The right back dropped the ball back to Weah, who whipped a cross into the middle of the box. England looked well-positioned to deal with the delivery, but McKennie lost his marker before skying his shot well over from eight yards when he should have done better.

The second moment came in the 33rd. McKennie received the ball with his back to goal inside the U.S. half, then ditched his defender with a brilliant turn. He carried the ball forward for nearly 60 yards, driving into the box and squaring up Declan Rice before clipping a pass back to Musah just outside the area. Musah quickly found Pulisic, who crashed an excellent left-footed shot past Jordan Pickford and off the crossbar.


McKennie and Pulisic after the Juventus midfielder fired over from eight yards (Photo: Michael Regan – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

The final moment came five minutes later. McKennie ambled over to the sideline deep in the final third to launch a throw-in into the box. Before he grabbed the ball, though, he decided to reach over the advertising boards and use the bib of an unwitting photographer to wipe the sweat off his hands to gain a better grip for the throw.

It was bizarre, but vintage McKennie. For better or worse, he doesn’t approach the game with as serious an attitude as most other players. He’s out there to win but he’s playing to have fun. When he’s struggling, his devil-may-care attitude can be exasperating. When he’s as effective as he was on Friday, that bravado feels more charming — it probably gives a boost to the rest of the team.

“Weston is super important to the team,” Weah said. “When you have a player who can do the things that he does, it just makes our life easier. When we’re triple on the side, myself, Weston and Serg, it gives teams a lot of problems because you don’t know what to do. I’m making the run, Weston gets the ball he can dribble, Serg can do what he does, we have multiple outlets.”

The U.S. certainly played with plenty of personality. Though they entered the match as heavy underdogs against England, who had beaten Iran 6-2 in their opener, the Americans controlled almost the entire game and had the better chances.

Just like McKennie, the U.S. were organized, disciplined, and seemed full of swagger. And just like McKennie, they did not have quite enough quality in front of goal. They have now been shutout in seven of their last nine matches against World Cup opponents, a streak that dates back to January.

The draw leaves them with a winner-takes-all match against Iran in the group stage finale on Tuesday.

After being hammered by England, Iran scored two later goals to beat Wales 2-0. They will be riding an emotional high have real talent on their roster, particularly in the forward line. A loss or a draw on Tuesday would knock the Americans out of the tournament.

That’d be a massively disappointing outcome. Though they certainly impressed with their play on Friday night, anything less than getting out of the group would be viewed as a failure by the team and by the American public. But if McKennie and the rest of the team can play like they did against England, the U.S. should have good odds of moving on.

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(Photo: Mohammad Karamali/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)


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