But for a quirk of fate, Weston McKennie could easily have been pulling on an American football shirt tonight rather than one of Leeds United.
The affable USA international flies in from Italy today to complete his loan move from Juventus, a deal which could be made permanent for £30million.
Yet if McKennie’s father John had answered a different calling 18 years ago, the young Texan has always believed he would have made a career in the NFL as opposed to being one of his country’s most talented ‘soccer’ players.
Juventus star Weston McKennie is on the cusp of completing a £30m move to Leeds United
John McKennie, a staff sergeant in the army, was due for a permanent change of station. They considered Alaska, but the family instead decided on Germany, and the Ramstein Air Base, based around 10 miles outside Kaiserslautern.
It was there that McKennie was first introduced to football.
‘Germany was the starting point: I never knew soccer was a sport before,’ said McKennie. ‘I went across the street to play with my brother sometimes and that’s when I met my first coach.’ Pushed though on what he would have become otherwise, McKennie has little hesitation. ‘I’d probably be playing American football, sitting here like 200 pounds and stocky.
‘I played that before I moved to Germany because my dad was in the military. That’s one of the reasons I started playing soccer, because they didn’t have that for my age over there in Germany.’
McKennie was first introduced to football 18 years ago after his staff sergeant father moved the family to Germany
Schalke came calling in 2016, which saw him shunned the MLS and a university scholarship
It may not sit so well with Leeds United’s investors from San Francisco 49ers, but McKennie has even impressed watching coaching staff of the Cleveland Browns after he put on a virtuoso quarter-back display post training at one of USA’s Gold Cup training camps. Not satisfied with text-book 60-yard spiral throws at all angles, he finished off with a few 50-yard field goals.
‘I think I could have made the NFL if I would have stuck with it. I’m one of those guys where whatever I do, I try to give 100 percent to it,’ says the Washington Commanders fan. ‘So if that was American football, I would have stuck with that and gave everything to that as well.’
McKennie joined his first soccer club, FC Phönix Otterbach, as a six-year-old in 2004. Taken along by his mother Tina, who was keen to channel his rambunctious nature elsewhere, he made a decent first impression, not with his unorthodox khaki shorts, but by scoring eight goals in his first game and he was hooked.
When his father was posted back to USA a few years later, McKennie continued to develop with FC Dallas while keeping his eye in with American football but, when Schalke came calling in 2016, he shunned the MLS and a university scholarship favoured by his father to gamble on a return to Germany. He has never looked back. ‘I made the right decision and I don’t regret it at all.’
It takes character to make such a leap of faith and those close to McKennie say he has that in abundance. What makes the decision he took at that crossroads in his life all the bolder was the fact some USA coaches had told him he wasn’t going to be good enough. The knock-backs drained him mentally and he considered quitting. Instead, he used their words as motivation.
The American has forged a career for himself across Europe in the Bundesliga and Serie A
Ultra-competitive, his first coach David Mueller says ‘some of his team-mates didn’t want to play any type of game with Weston’ he was that annoying.
Such hate for losing was forged from his formative days shadowing big brother John Jr around. The two football-loving siblings would often test each other. Indeed, Weston sports a scar under his left eye from the day John ‘tackled and slammed him into the TV set’.
Bubbly in the dressing room, he is quick to shows off his dance moves and partial to chilling in a garish ‘cheetah print’ adidas tracksuit, but equally McKennie is quick to get serious when kick-off comes.
His talent was also reaffirmed when former Juventus coach Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s renowned midfield maestro, chose to sign him for Juventus in 2020.
However, a demanding Pirlo warned him to get serious and ‘more professional’ amid concerns about his fluctuating weight. ‘Now he is concentrated and more professional compared to when he arrived. He has lost weight and that’s something we had to drill into his mindset,’ Pirlo said. ‘He has to be professional at 100pc, not 50pc.’
Lessons heeded, McKennie was entrusted with various roles at Juventus including that of the attacking ‘mezzala’ and began adding more goals to his game. He scored the fastest hat-trick in US men’s history, by grabbing three in 13 minutes against Cuba and few strikes were more memorable than his scissor kick for Juventus in their Champions League win over Barcelona at the Nou Camp.
Harry Potter fanatic McKennie adopted imaginary wand waving as his goal celebration
Providing that little bit of magic is perhaps inspired by his passion for JK Rowling’s little wizard Harry Potter. McKennie has been an avid fan since his grandmother bought him the books as a six-year-old. He even adopted imaginary wand waving as his goal celebration.
Not shy of entertaining, he has already made his silver screen debut, appearing alongside animated cat ‘Puss in Boots’ to plug the Dreamworks studio’s latest film last November to coincide with USA’s World Cup involvement.
His profile has risen so much in Italy that even his beloved pet American Akita dogs, who he hopes to bring over to Yorkshire, have become celebrities.
‘Juve is the biggest club in Italy right now, so whenever I walk into the city, which I don’t do that often, I get stopped probably like every 10 metres,’ McKennie said. ‘In Italy, people will follow you for like 200 yards and walk into stores that you’re going into and corner you and take photos, which I kind of feel is part of the profession, but it’s also one of the things where I just want to be off to myself, just enjoy a walk or take my dogs out.
His profile has risen so much in Italy that even his beloved pet American Akita dogs, who he hopes to bring over to Yorkshire, have become celebrities
‘Even my dogs over in Italy are recognisable now so it’s kind of hard to just get out.’
Juve are the boyhood club of Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani so bringing McKennie, a player long linked with some of Europe’s elite, from Turin to Elland Road has added lustre.
It’s a bold move but a reasoned one from Radrizzani knowing McKennie is already close with prospective team-mates Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams.
The dream is that McKennie can help Leeds reach their goals, though the new arrival has not still given up on potentially making the switch to that other football code one day.
‘Who knows,’ says McKennie. ‘Maybe I’ll make it pro one day but by being kicker.’
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