A View from Afar / Union

Mark McKenzie’s missed opportunity

Photo: Earl Gardner

2019 was supposed to be Mark McKenzie’s breakout year.

He had won a starting center back job for Philadelphia Union against tough competition just last season and played very well. He would captain the U.S. youth national team in this year’s U-20 World Cup. McKenzie’s breakout wasn’t supposed to be just local. The opportunity was there to draw European interest.

The breakout hasn’t happened, however.

Instead, it’s all gone wrong.

First, McKenzie lost a training camp battle with Jack Elliott for the Union’s starting right center back job, and Elliott has locked down the job by staying healthy and playing at an all-star level. (He made my ballot and is perhaps the Union player most deserving of an all-star spot this season.)

Then an appendectomy sidelined McKenzie and left him well short of peak fitness and match sharpness entering the World Cup. He was still named captain, but this wasn’t the same McKenzie we saw last season. Observers walked away from the World Cup talking about Chris Richards, Paxton Pomykal, and Richie Ledezma. McKenzie was an afterthought.

The biggest question now is how McKenzie will respond.

Physically, recovery from an appendectomy takes time. McKenzie’s lack of fitness and sharpness at the World Cup is understandable, but one should expect him to be back in full playing condition sometime this summer, if he is not already.

Mentally, there is another challenge altogether. If you want to test a person’s mettle, watch not just how they react to success, but how they respond to failure. Does the failure collapse the person, or does it drive the person onward to advance oneself even further?

The second question is where and even whether McKenzie will get the opportunity. Union USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel seems logical at the outset, to get him regular minutes to regain fitness and sharpness.

After that, however, McKenzie has two excellent starting central defenders ahead of him with the Union, and neither looks likely to surrender his spot through any means other than injury.

As good as McKenzie’s chemistry may be with left center back Auston Trusty, forged over years in the Union academy system, Elliott is just as good a complement.

The pairing functions with Trusty being the tall, aggressive, physical marvel who has locked down his job because he is also a natural left-footer. While his ball skills are solid enough, it’s his athletic ability, size and left foot that set him apart. Meanwhile, his passing ability is no better than average, as it’s an all too common sight for Trusty to simply boot long balls over his attackers to the opposition when he faces defensive pressure or sees no other passing options.

That’s what makes Elliott and McKenzie ideal complements to him, albeit in different ways. Both are smart, ball-playing defenders who rely on good positioning, but how they do it is vastly different.

Elliott’s game is built around his height, technique, and the long ball. He has extraordinary passing vision for a center back, as good as any in MLS. He may lack speed, but his ability to play out of the back and drop long balls on a dime are elite among MLS defenders. His 6-6 height is a significant bonus both in defense and on attacking set pieces, though he has proved to score goals even better with his feet.

As for McKenzie, it’s his agility, speed, and ability to pass and dribble through tight quarters that stand out. Unlike Trusty, McKenzie isn’t what you think of when you draw up a prototypical center back. His superior technical ability and lack of size tempt some to consider him for right back, as USMNT U-20 coach Tab Ramos tried briefly in the World Cup, and it is true that McKenzie can deputize there. But the way he sees the field is center back through and through.

Other than injury or inexplicable loss of form by Elliott, McKenzie’s most plausible way back to the Union starting lineup may be international transfer. Elliott’s British citizenship and excellent play could draw attention from England, though the kick-and-tackle crowd there may look askance at the spindly defender known more for his technique than his physicality. On the other hand, Trusty’s physical tools and left foot are the sorts of traits that make international scouts everywhere salivate.

These factors are outside McKenzie’s control, however.

For him, the task is straightforward: Recover health, recover form, work hard, and take every minute of playing time seriously, whether in MLS or USL. All else will play out in time. McKenzie remains just 20 years old, with a boatload of talent and potential. Time is on his side for now.


  1. Old Soccer Coach says:

    He has an instinct for defensive positioning in the box and a calmness on the ball when in possession an under pressure as well.
    Elliott could play a more defensive version on the bottom vertex of the midfield triangle than Medunjanin and McKenzie would then be next to Trusty. Thy would cover Elliott’s speed.

  2. It happens.

    To be specific though, he was hurt during training camp as well right? Which must have contributed to him losing the battle to Elliot.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Would love to see Haris taken off – later in a game to lock it down – Elliott slide up to that 6 role and McKenzie brought in to the back line. I know it’s tough to bring in a CB late in a game, but it would be a good way to get him some time.
    Or get nuts and go to a back 3 next year. Just need some wing backs to get it done

    • Replied above before reading your comment, I agree 100%.
      I also like the idea of 3 in the back with McKenzie – Elliot – Trusty. Kai basically already plays wingback, would just need someone on the right.

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