Philadelphia Union centerback Mark McKenzie experienced plenty of firsts throughout his inaugural Major League Soccer season, but his final accomplishment was one of the rarest.
The 19-year-old went directly from the Union’s playoff loss against New York City FC into the Concacaf Under-20 Championship in Bradenton, Fla.
Alongside Philadelphia Union teammates Matthew Real and Anthony Fontana, McKenzie led the U.S. under-20 men’s national team to the tournament title and a spot in next year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland.
“It was a great experience and a great trip,” McKenzie said Tuesday. “To round out the whole month of the tournament with a trophy is always the best way possible to end things. It was a great group of guys and we grinded out several good performances, and ultimately we were able to come out on top against a difficult Mexico team. It was long stretch, but it was a good tournament for the group and I’m happy with how we progressed.”
McKenzie said the emotional swing was hard after getting eliminated from the Major League Soccer postseason, but after a day or two to regroup, he centered his focus on making sure the U-20s achieved their goal.
McKenzie captained the squad on a few occasions and found the back of the net three times, including twice in a 13-0 blowout win over the U.S. Virgin Islands in the second game of the group phase.
“It was difficult with getting knocked out of the playoffs,” McKenzie said. “I just had to change my mindset, shift gears and understand that I could play a good role in helping the team in this Concacaf tournament, progressing and qualifying for the World Cup. I took a day or two to recover a little bit and eventually I got a couple games in the group stage and I just picked up where I left off.”
Throughout the competition, Union head coach Jim Curtin, himself a former centerback, kept in touch with McKenzie to provide some encouragement. McKenzie also used the lessons learned from his first professional season to help out the U-20s.
“I did text with him and he offered words of advice and encouragement throughout the tournament,” McKenzie said of Curtin. “I’m just carrying those lessons over and trying to pick the group up in the down times and keep everybody humble in the good times.”
Now comes the most important task McKenzie’s been faced with, and one some young players might have difficulty adjusting to.
McKenzie went from playing a collegiate season with Wake Forest to testing himself in preseason and then playing a full campaign with the Union before venturing down to Florida for the U-2o tournament. The 19-year-old still needs to keep fresh, but rest is also needed, as he tries to make a bigger impact for club and country in 2019.
“Now it’s taking time off to step away from the game and let my body recover, spend some time with family and friends I haven’t seen in a while, watch games on the weekend and enjoy being in the offseason,” McKenzie said. “Sprinkled in there, I’ll be working out and getting my touches back on the ball and getting sharp. Nothing too complicated or complex. In the next few weeks, I’ll start breaking down the film and looking at aspects of my game I want to tailor and fine tune going into next year.”