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Union transfer Mark McKenzie to Belgium’s KRC Genk

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Earlier today the Philadelphia Union announced the sale of Homegrown centerback Mark McKenzie to Belgian Jupiter League’s KRC Genk. It occurs with immediate effect, as McKenzie will join them as soon as possible this month.

“We are so proud of Mark and the winning mentality he brings to every match and training session and we know he will continue that at Genk, which gives him every opportunity to reach all of his goals,” said Union sporting director Ernst Tanner in a press release.

The Union’s announcement calls the deal a multi-million dollar one that could end up being the highest price received for an MLS center back. No actual dollar figures are given in the Union release. However, Transfermarkt gives the fee as $6 million, the highest ever paid for a central defender out of MLS.  The Inquirer reports that the deal also includes a percentage of future sell-on fees.  (Jonathan Tannenwald in the Inquirer has an interview today with McKenzie that conveys a good sense of the person the Belgian side is acquiring.)

For all MLS defenders it is second only to Alphonse Davies, Bayern Munich’s Canadian left back acquired from the Vancouver Whitecaps.

“Before working towards my goal of playing in Europe I remember sitting in the stands watching my home team, the Union, and hoped that one day I’d get the chance to play for my city in front of my family, friends, and fans. I am so thankful to have been given the chance to do so,” said McKenzie.

A native of Bear, Del., IMcKenzie played in 48 games in his three-year Union career, starting 46. He never earned a red card, and chipped in two goals and three assists — all in 2020. His outstanding season in 2020 saw him named to the MLS Best XI and finish runner-up to Walker Zimmerman in Defender of the Year voting.

On a personal note, the first day I officially covered a Bethlehem Steel FC match for this publication was Mark McKenzie’s debut for the Steel against New York Red Bulls 2.  He displayed superb athleticism from the first glance. To borrow the words of former Olympic distance runner Davey Wohl spoken in another context, he flowed over the ground.

Later that year after Richie Graham had unveiled the Union Academy schoolhouse to the public in November, I spent a day embedded at the Academy, watching both 8:00 AM practice and the late afternoon one as well as attending all the classes I could between 10:30 and 2:30.

The school arranged for me to speak with four students during a free period. At least two were Ivy-League bound as understandably the school was putting its best foot forward. McKenzie, heading to Wake Forest, was one of the four.  His answers were thoughtful, on point, and also inquisitive. He projects dignity and respect making it is easy respect him and take him seriously.

His recent 21-year-old prominence as a leading voice for Black Lives Matter harmonizes well with the young man I met back in December of 2016.

“His dedication to training, learning and drive to improve paired with his passion, moral grounding, and personality off the field, makes him an invaluable member of any team and locker room,” said Union manager Jim Curtin.

KRC Genk currently sit in second place in Belgium’s first division and appeared in the Champions League as recently as the 2019-20 edition. Players developed at Genk include Kevin De Bruyne, Leon Bailey, Alejandro Pozuelo and Kalidou Koulibaly.

The question is now how the Union will replace McKenzie in the backline, where the player was an elite-level left center back as a right-footed player.

At 2020’s end of year press conference Tanner intimated that the Union were already doing their homework in case they had to replace McKenzie. His careful, standard caveats about the difficulties of three-party negotiations, and the importance of caution and patience should be kept in mind. In an afternoon media availability, Tanner stated that the club would “certainly bring in a left-footed center back.”

With Jack Elliott already rostered, any replacement’s internal competition is already here. If Tanner chooses and negotiates well, Jim Curtin will have another one of those “good” headaches.

10 Comments

  1. Andy Muenz says:

    I made this comment on MLS.com and I’ll make it here as well.
    .
    I knew this day was coming but I’m still sad to see him go. While he is a great player on the field, that is completely dwarfed by the stances he has taken off the field. Before his career is through, I would not be surprised to see him become one of the best on field leaders in the game.

  2. Mark has always been the rock for me. Always even. Always steadfast. In the “competition” of who would be the first star defender to come from the academy, Mark was always a step above Trusty. He just exudes confidence.
    .
    Thanks to Mark for his time here. He will be missed. I believe as with others, that his future is bright. Go get ’em Mark.

  3. All the best, Mark.
    As for the U, can’t wait to spend that $$$

  4. Great job mark you earned your way to where your going keep up the phenomenal strategy of reading where the ball is on the pitch because I felt so comfortable when you played your style of being the best defender in MLS #goforitbro

  5. Congratulations, Mark! Well-deserved.

  6. How much of the 6 million stays in Chester and how much goes to the league offices?

    • Since Mark was a homegrown, it will all stay in the Union coffers. The rule was recently adjusted to allow teams to keep 100% of all homegrown transfer fees.

  7. Genk is out of European club competitions this year. But what is the outlook for next year if they stay in 2nd place in Belgian top flight? Europa League play-in? Also, does the 1st place Belgian league team get a Champions League spot or only a play-in spot?

    Finally, will Aaronson be eligible to play in Salzburg’s Europa League fixtures? Can Marsch change his selections before the knock out rounds?

    I have so many questions, because I haven’t previously followed the leagues in which Union homegrowns now find themselves.

  8. Loved to watch him play, but well deserved and the obvious next step for his career. I want him to make the USMNT roster before long.

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