CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union defenders Mark McKenzie and Matt Real had plenty of motivation to push to make the United States U-20 national team roster for the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
One of the main driving forces was the U.S. appearances of fellow academy products Auston Trusty and Derrick Jones at the 2017 World Cup.
“It was a big inspiration,” Real said. “I even watched Auston during the U-17s as well, before I was even involved in the national team pool, because when I was younger, I was always in and out. But until I really solidified my spot, it was always a big goal of mine to solidify myself in the group and show that I belong there.”
Throughout the U-20 World Cup cycle, which began at the start of 2018, McKenzie and Real have established themselves as two of the most important players to Tab Ramos’ squad.
Both have worn the armband for the U-20s, and they are expected to do so again during the competition in Poland.
“It feels great. It’s been a long time coming,” McKenzie said. “We’ve been working toward qualifying and now for the tournament to actually be here is a great feeling. To be named in the roster is incredible. It’s incredible to represent your country and represent the club in one of the biggest tournaments for our age. It’s surreal.”
Said Real: “The fact that Tab has a large amount of trust in Mark and I as players, in our ability on and off the field, speaks a lot for the work we’ve been doing here, all of the minutes we’ve put in training on and off the field.”
The teammates have taken different paths to the U-20 World Cup roster this season. Real’s been earning consistent minutes with USL Championship side Bethlehem Steel, while McKenzie has dealt with a few injuries and is currently working his way back from an appendectomy.
Real has impressed Union manager Jim Curtin over the last few weeks by making improvements to his game that should be helpful during the tournament.
“What (Real) has improved this season is he defends forward more, so he’s more aggressive when guys receive the ball rather than backpedaling,” Curtin said. “If you start to backpedal and give wingers space, it’s done. He’s been very aggressive going forward. He’s improved his 1v1 defending. He still has work to do on that, but I’ve really liked, especially in the last 2-3 weeks, that he’s really stepped his game up. Timing wise it’s good for his confidence going into a big competition.”
McKenzie is pushing himself to be ready for the U-20 World Cup opener May 24.
“I feel good,” McKenzie said. “I’ve been working with the trainers here just trying to get back out on the field fully as fast as possible. Where I’m at now, I’m ahead of the game and I have full confidence in myself that I’ll be healthy for the opener.”
Although this season has been tough for McKenzie, who dealt with a few injuries, he’s remained positive with the goal of making the U-20 World Cup roster in his mind.
“It’s definitely been difficult,” McKenzie said. “The initial shock of having to go through an appendectomy: Why Now? To now be over that hump, of course there were some tough days, but it’s about remaining confident in my abilities and not getting too down on myself, not throwing myself a pity party because that will completely throw myself out of whack.
“I was confident in the training staff here and I was happy where I was. So, it’s day by day now, but come the 24th, I feel I’ll be ready.”
McKenzie and Real hope to serve as inspiration for the next wave of youth national team players coming out of the Union system, just like Trusty and Jones motivated them two years ago.
“I’m hoping it makes a huge impact,” Real said. “I’m hoping it makes the same impact that it did on me because I got to where I am right now. Not a lot of people get an opportunity to play on a stage like this, yet alone a World Cup in general.
“I definitely hope the boys down in the academy, down in the whole system here can use that as a stepping stone, as well to say, ‘He was in the same position as me a couple years ago, so maybe if I push myself as hard as he did, in three to four years I can get to the same places they are.'”
Curtin emphasized how the success of McKenzie and Real can impact the Union’s academy, and thus MLS team, in the future.
“It’s more powerful for the kids that are in our school right now, because that’s our selling point,” Curtin said. “When people in this country look out now, they’re going to want to be a part of our academy because they know they can play for not only the national team, but they’ll actually play minutes on our field.
“That’s the most powerful thing we have going for us is that we have had a good string of success with youth national teams, with the first team. And it’s only going to grow, and that number is only going to get bigger.”
As for the competition itself, McKenzie and Real are hopeful the team can provide some excitement to a fan base that has been through a lot of disappointment in the last few years.
“Tab has even told us with the all the groups he’s worked with in the past, he doesn’t think he’s ever seen a cycle this deep and talented,” Real said. “It gave us a lot of confidence hearing that come from him.”
“Ultimately you want to go in there and win it,” McKenzie said. “You want to come home with a trophy, to win the first World Cup in U.S. history. Even though it’s not the senior World Cup, it’s the next step down.
“You can only take it game by game. You have to get the results needed to qualify and advance to each round.”