Mark McKenzie is back with the Union and eager to compete for a starting spot

Mark McKenzie recently rejoined the Philadelphia Union for pre-season camp last week after making his USMNT senior team debut in a 1-0 clean sheet victory against Costa Rica.

Mark McKenzie came on in the second half of the USMNT’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica last week. Mandatory Credit: US Soccer

“It was incredible and a surreal moment to be able to step on the field with the Senior Team,” said McKenzie during a brief phone call with Tuesday. “It was a dream come true. It was a hard month of work put in. I’m very grateful for the opportunity and it’s a really good step forward.”

For McKenzie, his off-season has been a bit hectic. He joined the USMNT U23’s for a training camp in the Canary Islands in November. Once camp concluded, McKenzie was told to keep a close eye on his email since the USMNT was trying to plan a potential trip to Qatar for their annual January training camp. He would later learn – after a brief vacation he provided himself in order to rest and recover – that he and his fellow Union teammate and youth academy graduate Brenden Aaronson were selected as part of the roster that would travel to the west coast to play under the warm sunshine in Carson, California.

“Having a familiar face with me always helps,” said McKenzie about Aaronson joining him with the group. “Having Brenden [Aaronson] with me and us both making our debut together was a great experience.”

McKenzie, who inked a new long-term deal with Philadelphia in early January, is only just beginning what could be a long tenure with the USMNT. At the same time, he and Aaronson debuting with the senior team is yet another major sign of progress for the Union’s youth academy system. And McKenzie acknowledges that proudly.

“I think it’s a sign that the Academy is making moves and they’re producing,” said McKenzie. “This is just two of what hopes to be many for the Union and other MLS Academies. It’s a milestone for the club and hopefully, it’s just the first and not the last.”

He now has his eyes set on the upcoming 2020 MLS season, one both he and his teammates will end with even more success than they enjoyed last year. Goals are high but so are the standards that McKenzie and the rest of Head Coach Jim Curtin’s players now hold themselves to.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

“It’s nice to be back with the group and to be able to see the guys and see what’s been going on; to see our style of play and what we’re trying to do not only short term but long term,” said McKenzie.

Short-term goals for the Union would most likely revolve around integrating their new acquisitions as soon as possible with week 1 quickly approaching at the end of the month. The long-term goals are a bit loftier, yet attainable given the team’s success last season.

But maybe the most pertinent change in the groups’ short-term plans is the level of accountability and energy each player has brought with them to Florida for pre-season training.

“We have higher standards for ourselves now. We really pushed ourselves last year,” said McKenzie when asked if there’s increased intensity in training. “And now going into 2020, we have really high goals and almost too high but at the same time we can accomplish them so long as we stay consistent and remain hungry.”

McKenzie hinted that a few of those lofty goals would be winning a potential Eastern Conference championship or at least appearing in the Conference Championship round and ultimately earning that Eastern Conference crown, something the group failed to do last season after falling short in Atlanta to end the season in the Conference semi-finals.

“There’s a lot of things on the table and opportunities for us to make our name known throughout the league,” said McKenzie. “I know there are going to be ups and downs throughout the year, but everyone has to remain ready when their name is called and be ready to step up when the opportunity presents itself.”

For McKenzie personally, he finds himself in the middle of hearty competition among a crowded group of center backs.

Jack Elliott returned to camp this week as a proud recipient of a US green card. Elliott started and played every minute of every match in both the regular and post-season. One would rightly assume that his starting spot at the right-center back spot is virtually a lock, yet pre-season is always an opportunity for others to challenge him.

The club also re-signed veteran center back Aurelien Collin to a short-term deal this off-season. Collin is mainly viewed by many as a back-up defender, one who can provide rest for weekly starters. Yet his presence provides increased competition throughout the group regardless of whether he has the potential to start or not.

And the most intriguing acquisition made by the club, other than locking up Jamiro Monteiro long-term, is the signing of Norwegian center back Jakob Glesnes to a two-year deal with club options on a third and fourth year just two weeks ago.

Glesnes has made immediate impacts with the group in his short time in Florida. Head Coach Jim Curtin has mentioned Glesnes has turned the heads of him and his technical staff with his passing abilities and footwork. McKenzie also acknowledged his skills.

“He’s a good player. He’s got really good feet,” said McKenzie. “He’s an aerial threat on set pieces and could be dominant for us. I think adding him has been a big positive for the entire group. Ultimately, it’s going to be competitive going into this year and everybody is going to be fighting for a spot. And that’s the best way it should be.”

Healthy competition between squad players is always a coach’s best friend. Not only will each player be motivated to accomplish their own personal goals, but the threat or challenge of having a starting spot hang in the balance is enough of a motivating factor to keep any player at their highest level.

McKenzie realizes that and his work ethic hasn’t faltered as he aims to earn a starting spot within the group.

When asked about his personal goals for the upcoming season, McKenzie explained, “I just want to remain hungry and humble throughout the year. I hold myself to a high standard and want to be mentioned with the best in the league. I’m still only 20 and have a lot to learn but I also know that it’s very tangible and so long as I remain focused on that and helping the team, those things will come.”

2020 could be another positive season not only for the franchise but for key young players like McKenzie. As the weeks go by, the anticipation builds. But one thing is certain, the competition and hunger for success seems to rest at a high level throughout Union camp this pre-season.

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Mandatory Credit: US Soccer & Philadelphia Union