Most teenagers thrown into the fire of high-level professional soccer are works in progress. Weston McKennie is no exception.
While he made headlines in the United States for earning a place in Bundesliga side Schalke’s starting lineup, the 19-year-old midfielder did not really stand out in his early appearances. But he’s been steadily improving over time, and Schalke seems set to reap the benefits if Sunday’s performance in a 2-0 win over Hamburg was any indication.
For the second time in his young Bundesliga career, McKennie went from start to finish for Schalke. He found himself much more involved in the play, with 41 total passes, tied for the most he’s had in a league contest this year. He also had two tackles and two interceptions.
Beyond that, McKennie just looked confident. He showed for the ball, appeared composed in moving the play along and looked to get on the end of scoring chances. He nodded a header from the six-yard box wide in the first few minutes of the contest, and badly mishit a shot from the edge of the area later in the first half.
Those misses are a reminder that McKennie is still an unfinished product, even if we saw a tantalizing hint of his potential on his run and goal against Portugal for the U.S. national team. But the youngster’s overall game is coming around — his performance against Hamburg was enough to get him named Man of the Match on Bundesliga.com.
The win moves Schalke up to second place in the Bundesliga and has the club riding high as it gears up for its huge derby with Borussia Dortmund. There, health permitting, we may get to witness perhaps the two most highly-regarded young Americans battle it out with McKennie squaring off against Christian Pulisic.
With Dortmund in free fall, and Schalke on the rise, the two teens could find themselves at the epicenter of a quite a stormy match.
WOOD FACES UPHILL BATTLE
On the other end of the Schalke-Hamburg contest was forward Bobby Wood, who started the match on the bench behind 17-year-old Jann-Fiete Arp.
Arp was active and involved in the contest, working hard to try to win back the ball on defense. He was a big part of things as Hamburg appeared to be battling its way back into the contest early in the second half.
Then Wood was brought on in place of a holding midfielder, Gotoku Sakai, as manager Markus Gisdol went to a more attacking formation to chase the game.
Unfortunately, Hamburg’s foothold quickly fell away, and a brilliant run by Daniel Caligiuri opened up its defense and allowed Schalke to find a second.
Wood himself wasn’t really the problem. He worked hard and was obviously trying to make something happen, at times picking up fouls in the opposition half trying to chase down a play that was obviously gone.
But it gave a hint as to why Gisdol is not anxious to play two strikers up top. Hamburg’s control of the game slipped away with one less body in the midfield and given his team's struggles, it’s hard to blame the manager for trying to grind games out.
Which means right now, there's just one spot available for Arp and Wood. And it’s hard to argue Arp isn’t currently in better form than Wood.
But as noted above, teenagers are works in process. Wood will likely get another chance eventually, and should see the field as a substitute in the meantime. He’ll need to make the most of those opportunities if he’s to reclaim the hold he once had on a spot in the XI.
MORALES MAKES IT THREE IN SIX
Last year, Alfredo Morales put early-season struggles behind him to show an impressive run of form through the winter months in the Bundesliga for Ingolstadt.
Now in the second division, he looks to have found his form once more.
The midfielder scored the only goal in a 1-0 Ingolstadt win over Fortuna Dusseldorf this past weekend. That brings his league tally up to two goals and three total in all contests — all in his last six games, which include five 2.Bundesliga contests and a DFB-Pokal outing. He also has an assist over that span.
"The 1-0 [scoreline] shows and we have played the match great," Morales said in quotes published in Kicker after the game. "That was a victory that was fun."
Meanwhile Ingolstadt has racked up an impressive 13 points from a possible 15 and now are up to fifth in the table. They still remain seven points off an automatic promotion place so don’t bet on Morales returning to the Bundesliga next season just yet.
But it is still worth appreciating success when it comes and right now Morales is one of the most in-form Americans playing abroad.
GONZALEZ AND MONTERREY TAKE FIRST
Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic aren’t the only teenage Americans making names for themselves these days. Jonathan Gonzalez, an 18-year-old defensive midfielder, continues to write his own tale in Liga MX.
While there was an injury worry coming in, Gonzalez was ready for Monterrey in the Apertura finale against rivals Tigres and went the full 90 in the 2-0 win. Not only did the victory hand Monterrey bragging rights over their rivals, it also gave them the top spot in the Apertura for the playoffs over, you guessed it, Tigres.
The teen has now played in 16 of Monterrey’s 17 Apertura games this season and started 14 of them. He has a great chance to pick up some silverware, though a tough road through the playoffs awaits starting with a showdown with Atlas.
While the Liga MX playoffs have often featured plenty of Americans in the past, this year will be light on them. Gonzalez and Leon goalkeeper William Yarbrough are the only starters on teams that made it. Jose Torres is on Tigres, but rarely sees the field for Tuca Ferreti’s side. Likewise, Edgar Castillo has played once for Monterrey all season.
Meanwhile, Omar Gonzalez and Pachuca, Jorge Villafana and Ventura Alvarado and Santos Laguna, Joe Corona, Michael Orozco and Alejandro Guido and Tijuana will all have to watch the playoffs from home.
MOORE GETS FIRST LA LIGA START
Shaq Moore’s rise in Spain continues. The 21-year-old fullback has made the jump from Levante II last year into the first team this season. He has been rewarded with a start in the Copa del Rey and received his La Liga debut in October.
Now he’s graduated to his first start in Spain’s top division. Called in due to injury, Moore nonetheless appeared to acquit himself well in Levante’s 2-0 win over Las Palmas. He went the full 90 minutes and drew praise from his head coach after the contest.
"Shaq is a physical marvel and has the judgment with the ball,” Levante manager Juan Muniz said after the game. “He has been very calm. We do not doubt him.”
Moore wasn’t the only young American to have a nice weekend on the Iberian Peninsula. Keaton Parks, a 20-year-old midfielder from Texas, made his debut for Benfica’s first team in Portuguese cup against top-division side Vitoria Setubal. Parks entered in the 69th minute and assisted on Benfica’s second goal in the 2-0 win.
While Moore is an intriguing right-back prospect, the current player on top of the U.S. depth chart picked up an assist Saturday as DeAndre Yedlin delivered the helper on Dwight Gayle’s opener for Newcastle against Manchester United. Unfortunately, that was the high point of the match for Yedlin and the Magpies, as the Red Devils went on to a 4-1 victory.
And another American defender picked up an assist this weekend in England. Cameron Carter-Vickers made it two assists in two games — not bad for a center back, even in a back three — in a 3-1 win over Burton.