United States international Weston McKennie says moving to Germany to join Schalke as a teenager gave him “tough skin,” and his national team manager Dave Sarachan believes it shows in his play.
The Texas native played for Schalke’s under-19 team upon joining the club in 2016, but quickly rose through the ranks and played in 22 Bungesliga games this season as his club finished second, their highest spot in the table since 2010.
He lived in a hotel when he first arrived in Gelsenkirchen and he said living on his own 5,000 miles from home changed him for the better.
“It definitely gave me tough skin. I’ve always been mentally strong. I think that’s one of my strengths. I don’t let a lot of stuff get to me,” McKennie told the Associated Press. “Not a lot of outside factors can influence my decisions and how I live my life, and how I play the game, as well.
“You just learn many things and learn quickly, and you have no choice but to learn quick. Otherwise, the train moves on and you’re left behind.”
McKennie spent seven years in the youth system of FC Dallas, which hoped to sign him to a homegrown player contract. He signed a letter of intent with the University of Virginia, then decided against college and Major League Soccer to sign with Schalke in 2016.
The midfielder said choosing between MLS and the Bundesliga was not a clear choice, even though he feels the difference between the leagues is clear.
“It was a hard decision for me, of course, because I’d been at Dallas so long. And you can’t just be like, ‘Oh, here comes Schalke. It’s a big club. Let me just throw out Dallas right now,'” McKennie said.
“I’ve never said anything bad about the MLS, but it’s not at that level yet, obviously, and many people, maybe they’ll be like, ‘Oh, he’s bashing the MLS.’ But it’s the truth. The Bundesliga is one of the top leagues if not the top league of teams in the world.”
The adjustment wasn’t all simple, however, as McKennie recalled a critical message that team leader Leon Goretzka delivered while he was trying to impress at his first preseason training camp with Schalke’s first team.
“I made two bad passes in a keep-away and possession game we were playing, and Leon was like, ‘Wes, you’ve got to make those passes. This isn’t the U19s anymore,'” McKennie recalled. “I was like: ‘Oh, no.'”
But interim U.S. boss Sarachan, who will lead McKennie and the national team in Saturday’s friendly against Ireland in Dublin, said playing under such conditions has served the 19-year-old well.
“He’s got a personality and he’s got a presence about him, which is important,” Sarachan said. “I think he’s developing a thick skin soccer-wise because he’s in a pressure-cooker at a place like Schalke.”
Schalke has played the 6-foot-1 McKennie in defensive and playmaking midfield roles, and coach Domenico Tedesco experimented with him at center-back in a three-man back line during a friendly, and Sarachan sees potential in both roles.
“I think he can be a guy that can play deeper but also has a comfort level of getting forward out of the midfield position and creating,” Sarachan said.
McKennie is part of a young squad that will face Ireland and France this month, and he said he was glad U.S. Soccer is already looking toward the future.
“We got knocked down, yeah, we didn’t qualify, but we always keep our heads up and try and make the best out of it, and turn a negative into a positive,” McKennie said. “I think that’s what we’re doing, bringing a lot of the young guys in, the new faces, trying out new things. At least it goes to show that, yeah, we’re making changes. Many people would say it’s better to make changes earlier.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.