As he sat down for lunch, Weston McKennie slipped his cellphone out of his pocket and onto the chair in front of him, hiding it beneath his legs. He was breaking the rules — he and his Schalke teammates were strictly forbidden from taking their phones into the cafeteria — but he was prepared to take the risk. There are some calls you do not want to miss.
McKennie found himself glancing down every few seconds, checking his screen as surreptitiously as he could. Midway through his meal, it arrived. His screen lit up and his chair buzzed. McKennie grabbed his phone, stood and walked out of the room. “I was just like: ‘Sorry, I’ve got to take this,’” he said. You do not, after all, keep Andrea Pirlo waiting.
The last few months have been full of moments like that for McKennie, instances in which the surreal somehow feels quotidian. His career, and his prospects, have undergone the sort of whirlwind transformation that can be difficult to process: the rise is so dizzyingly rapid and the curve so precipitously steep that after a while, the scale and speed of the journey as a whole is difficult to gauge.
It is only in fleeting vignettes — little scenes from his last six months — that McKennie can catch a reflection of his new reality. Last summer, he was a 22-year-old midfielder from Little Elm, Texas, who had been a rare ray of sunlight in the otherwise stormy sky looming over Schalke, the troubled Bundesliga team where he had spent all of his professional career.
His most recent season had been conflicted. Personally, McKennie had found it satisfying: He had made 28 Bundesliga appearances in a campaign interrupted by the pandemic, and had established himself as a mainstay of the United States national team. Collectively, it had been difficult. Schalke had collapsed in the second half of the season. It did not win a single league game between January and the summer.
Even in that context, his performances had been good enough to catch the attention of the likes of Southampton and Newcastle, steady performers from the middle reaches of the Premier League. He was one of the few assets Schalke possessed that it could sell. He most likely knew the club needed money. He most definitely knew that cash was scarce in a pandemic-afflicted market.
But then his agent mentioned that another team had inquired about his services. “It didn’t seem super-realistic,” McKennie said. “So I kind of brushed it off.” A couple of weeks later, though, the same suitor returned, the interest more concrete this time. “We have to make it happen,” McKennie instructed his agent, as he prepared to join Schalke’s preseason training camp. He was told to expect a call from Juventus, the grand old lady of Italian soccer, coached by Pirlo and home of Cristiano Ronaldo. Precisely, in other words, the sort of call you do not want to miss.
The conversation went well. Pirlo outlined why he wanted McKennie: There would be lots of games this season, plenty of chances for an energetic, dynamic, ball-hungry player to shine. McKennie did not need a hard sell. “It was more a case of me selling myself to him,” he said. “If that’s what he wanted, then that’s what I’d do.”
And so McKennie finds himself where he is now: still a 22-year-old from Little Elm, Texas, but one that has made such an impression in the midfield of the biggest club in Italy — one not battling relegation but competing to win Serie A and the Champions League — that last week it exercised its option to turn his initial one-season loan into a permanent deal, paying $21.5 million for the privilege.
It is the final seal of “approval” of his coach, Pirlo, who just so happens to be one of the finest exponents of the midfield art in recent history. “A legend,” McKennie calls him.
Sometimes, he said, he overhears one of his teammates expressing disbelief at finding themselves playing in such rarefied air, competing with the heroes of their childhood. “They can’t believe how far they’ve come, that they’re playing in the Champions League,” he said. “And I think that, when I was a kid, I had never even heard of the Champions League.” McKennie is not fulfilling his dreams: Somehow, it is bigger than that, as if he is stretching the bounds of reality.
It is in those little moments that he can glimpse it. Sometimes, it is something grand that triggers it. When he was younger, he and his family, then living in Germany, where his father’s Air Force career had taken them, went to Camp Nou while on vacation. They explored a lot, he said, during the years they lived near Kaiserslautern, where they moved when McKennie was 6.
“The stadium was closed that day,” he remembered. “But we persuaded the security guard to let us in. The team was training: all of those players, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho.” They stood and watched for a while. When a loose ball flew into the stands, McKennie scurried down to retrieve it and throw it back. That was their cue to leave.
He had not been back to Barcelona until December. “It was strange that it was empty, just the players on the field, when I first went, and it was empty again now,” he said. This time, McKennie did not have to plead with security to let him in. He belonged not only in the stadium, but on the field. He scored that night.
Sometimes, though, the realizations come in more intimate, more private settings. Those are the ones that catch McKennie by surprise. “I was sitting with Alvaro Morata after training the other day,” he said. “We were just watching Cristiano practicing his free kicks. And we turned to each other and said what a privilege it is, just to be able to do that: to watch him take free kick after free kick.”
But while McKennie feels fortunate to find himself where he is, that should not be mistaken for luck. He is no mere tourist at Juventus, passing through, savoring these snapshots of life in the elite, an American on some sort of year abroad in Serie A.
The perception, when he joined, was that he was destined to be an option of first reserve: that he would spend much of his time riding the bench, and when he was not, he would be a “hard six,” there to win the ball back and give it to someone with, well, more talent.
In reality, even McKennie is a little “surprised” at how important he has become. He has appeared in 22 of Juventus’s 25 games in Serie A, and six of its seven — so far — in the Champions League. He has emerged, too, as a creative, offensive force: He has scored at Camp Nou, in that rout of Barcelona, and at San Siro, in a win against A.C. Milan. He is comfortable enough in his surroundings to joke that Ronaldo, Aaron Ramsey and Dejan Kulusevski take turns acting as his translator (though his Italian is now good enough, he said, to understand most of what is going on.)
At first, he said, he worried about living up to expectations, wondering “why they chose me.” It has taken only a few months for those anxieties to dissipate entirely, quietly shed as his rise gathered speed and height, as McKennie has proved that he belongs.
That is what makes his transformation difficult to parse: that it has felt so smooth, so natural, that the line between remarkable and quotidian has blurred quite so readily, that it seems so obvious now not only why McKennie picked up, but why Pirlo called in the first place.