Mark McKenzie left training Wednesday afternoon just like any other day. But yesterday, the 20-year old center back from Bear, Delaware was due to return to Chester for a media appearance set to take place before Bethlehem Steel FC’s home match vs Loudoun United FC.
McKenzie arrived back down to the stadium around 6:20 PM and promptly hopped on a call with PhillySportsNetwork.com. While we chatted, a line of young children formed, eagerly awaiting a chance to meet Mark and possibly take a photo or snag an autograph from a pro.
Their experience, meeting a pro player face-to-face, is one that McKenzie remembers all too well.
“My first experience with MLS was going to a Red Bull game, which is kind of ironic. I met Thierry Henry,” said McKenzie. “It was an incredible experience.”
McKenzie understands the impact small moments like the time he met Henry can have on a young kid. Those unforgettable instances throughout a lifetime heavily influence our lives.
“It kind of lights a fire in you to see guys playing live,” said McKenzie.
Last night was not only a chance for the young center back to show out for the kids, but also a moment for McKenzie to give thanks to Steel FC and the coaches that helped him progress into the professional he is today. Prior to joining the Union as a regular in 2018, McKenzie played eight total times in a Steel FC kit as an amateur in 2016 and 2017 before playing one year of college ball at Wake Forest University. He inked his first professional contract as a Homegrown Player on January 18th of 2018.
When asked his thoughts on the resources Steel FC provides young players, McKenzie mentioned “It’s priceless. Offering kids an opportunity to play in a professional league at such a young age exposes them to the different factors you need to make it,” said McKenzie. “And they start us out young. I think that’s the best [part]. They’re putting us out there and forcing us to grow by placing us outside of our comfort level. It’s incredible.”
With the one year of college soccer in his past, McKenzie followed a rather unique path to MLS. Some would say it was the best of both worlds, enjoying a somewhat normal college experience while gaining professional soccer experience the year after. McKenzie explained the positives of his experience while lauding the variety of paths other Union Homegrowns have taken.
“I think every player has a different path,” said McKenzie. “Whether it be [Auston] Trusty signing straight from the Academy into the First Team, Derrick [Jones] going from the Steel to the First Team. [Matthew] Freese went to Harvard for two years and now is on the First Team and Brenden [Aaronson] signed from high school. It’s amazing how many different paths we each have and I think that’s a testament to the Union and what they’re doing for the youth,” said McKenzie.
Recently, Philadelphia has continued its investment in their Youth Academy by offering Jack de Vries and Cole Turner Homegrown deals effective January 2020. The team currently contains six Homegrown Players on its First Team roster.
“They believe in us and know every player develops at a different time. For them to take a chance on us at different points in our career, you’re extremely thankful for that,” said McKenzie.
But a contract alone doesn’t guarantee a Homegrown player time on the pitch. In 2018, McKenzie started 18 times – just once in through the first two months of the season. He then earned 12 straight starts from May through July, only to be unused for the next month and a half. McKenzie then finished the season as the starting center back, ultimately playing in each of the last five matches – including the playoff loss at NYCFC on October 21st.
This season, it’s been more of the same for McKenzie: long stretches of no First Team action followed by a strong streak of starting XI appearances.
So how does a young player handle not playing while ultimately not losing the edge needed in training each day to compete for the starting role?
“Ultimately as a competitor and a player you want to be on the field as much as possible,” said McKenzie. “I’m always aspiring to be the best I can be and to shoot as high and as far as I can. To not be playing was definitely frustrating but I also knew that my attitude would ultimately dictate me getting on the field.”
In other words, McKenzie has become accustomed to preparing for each and every situation rather than reacting once he comes face to face with adversity.
“In that period of time, it was frustrating but at the same time it was a learning period in order for me to grow,” admitted McKenzie. “As long as I prepare properly, I won’t have to necessarily get ready when that opportunity gets there because I’ll already be preparing as if it was here. That’s something my father reiterates to me every day: preparation for the opportunity rather than just praying for the opportunity.”
And it was the little things that McKenzie remained laser-focused on during the opening five months of the 2019 season when he earned just 12 minutes and battled through a concussion and ankle injury.
The injuries aside, McKenzie never sagged in terms of his training. He never pouted and avoided a rut. “I kept doing the little things like getting treatment, staying later on the field and doing some extra work with the coaches like heading balls, clearing balls, diagonals, passing through the lines, and taking care of my body. These are little things that I take pride in my game and I think that it’s vital,” said McKenzie.
His work ethic on the training grounds is one main reason for his success within the USMNT international system as well. Most recently, McKenzie received his first-ever call-up with the USMNT U-23 team when he joined teammates Aaronson, Freese, and Trusty a few weeks ago for a camp in California. In May of this year, McKenzie made the U-20 squad for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland. All of this experience, including his time as captain of the USMNT U-20 team back in late 2018, helps McKenzie stay fit and fresh when he returns to Chester with the Union.
“After you travel and live around the world in different environments and have different experiences, you have to grow,” said McKenzie. “You have to force yourself outside of your comfort zone and try new things. Whether it be food, whether it be cultures, or different playing styles – it’s all very important. I think being in the national team system has helped.”
Traveling and experiencing the worldly cultures aside, the competition on the field is also a major factor. “To be able to compete and test yourself in a way against the best talent not only in the US but the world is incredible,” said McKenzie. “It’s a big portion of how and why I’ve developed the way I have. Being in the national team system and pitting myself against top talent, it’s important.”
At this point in the conversation, the line of kids waiting to meet Mark had grown a bit too long. Mark politely halted our call and greeted the children who were entering Talen Energy Stadium to see Steel FC. Following the meet and greet with the little fans, Mark jumped back on the call to answer one more question.
When asked what he’s learned about being a vocal leader both on and off the pitch at such a young age – specifically as captain of the U-20 team – McKenzie mentioned a golden rule of sorts: actions speak louder than words.
“To be a captain, it forces you to step outside your comfort zone and learn not only about yourself but also what helps everybody else tick. Leading is more than just speaking. It shows in your actions on and off the field. Whether it be keeping guys in check in the hotel or on the training field making sure everybody is tuned in and knows their role,” said McKenzie.
“I think it’s an important step in being a leader and I take great pride in it,” he said. “I was blessed and honored to be named captain of the group and I take that experience with me to this day. I just look to build on that every time I step on the field, whether it be with the Union or not.”
And with that, our conversation ended and Mark continued to provide young fans the same opportunity that ignited his passion for soccer: a chance to meet a pro.
Steel FC eventually went on to win the match in exciting fashion. They netted five goals on their way to a W, capping off a positive youth-centered night at Talen Energy Stadium.
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Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports