To understand just how high and how fast Weston McKennie's stock has risen in a short amount of time, you need only go back one year.
At this time in 2017, McKennie was a regular on Schalke's U-19 team, and the closest he was to a national team look was the Under-20 World Cup he wound up missing because his club team had other plans for him.
Even McKennie couldn't have envisioned what would follow in the next 12 months. He broke into the Schalke first team, doing so during a season that saw the club enjoy a meteoric rise that culminated with an improbable second-place finish in the Bundesliga, and the Champions League berth that goes with it.
Along the way, McKennie earned his first national team appearance and scored a goal in his debut against Portugal, giving U.S. fans a desperately needed dose of optimism after the World Cup qualifying debacle that took place just a month earlier.
Now the 19-year-old is preparing for a summer that will begin with him taking on a major role in the heart of the U.S. midfield, and will wrap up with Schalke taking part in the Champions League for the first time in four years.
"Me and my agent (former U.S. defender Cory Gibbs), whenever we see each other, we think about how far we’ve come," McKennie told Goal in an exclusive interview. "It’s something that I do look back and I say, 'I’ve come a long way.'
"But it’s also a motivation because it can’t stop here. There’s always more. I want to see if I can make it to the next level, and the next level, and keep going further."
McKennie has already grown as a player at an astronomical rate in the past season, developing his game in the pressure cooker of the Bundesliga. The teenager has benefited from the tutelage of manager Domenico Tedesco, a 32-year-old coaching prodigy who has helped McKennie gain a deeper understanding of the game, and of the defensive midfield role he has settled into.
"He put it in my head that tactically if we do everything correct we can beat any team," McKennie said of Tedesco. "He opened my mind up a lot, and I think that’s also what separates our team from any other teams tactically defensively. We’re one of the best in Europe."
McKennie has developed a close relationship with his manager, who he feels can relate to him and understand him more than perhaps an older manager might. Tedesco's tactics have helped guide Schalke, but McKennie also appreciates Tedesco's willingness to incorporate input from players when formulating game plans, as well as his ability to get the most out of every player on the field.
"He makes you feel valuable even though you’re maybe not the one doing the goal-scoring and assisting,' McKennie said. "He makes sure that you know that you’re important for the tactics and the role in the team."
McKennie's improvement was clear to see as the Bundesliga season went on. His energy and work rate helped make up for a lack of tactical acumen and experience early on, but with time McKennie began to develop a better understanding of how to read situations, how to better use his energy and how to position himself more effectively.
"My composure and my concentration level had to be higher than what it normally was, and being around players day in and day out, on and off the field, helped," McKennie said. "With players like Naldo, and people behind me, and even though I’m young I got wiser in my positioning, realizing that chasing a 40-yard ball when I can maybe move 10 yards another way is conserving a lot more energy, so I think my positioning got better definitely.
"I still knock out probably 12 or 13 kilometers per game, but it saves me energy so I can tough it out at the end of games."
McKennie will be looking to carry over the experience he has gained at Schalke into a budding role as one of the pillars of the next generation of U.S. midfielders.
"Clearly, when you’ve had those opportunities that he’s had at Schalke, and the way he finished the season, and seeing a lot of minutes, he’s grown as a player, he’s grown as a professional," U.S. coach Dave Sarachan said.
"I know at Schalke he’s played in a few different roles and with us now coming in, I would say we don’t have a lot of leaders within this group but he’s a guy that comes in with a lot of confidence and personality, and I think tactically has a real better feel for different positions in the central part of the field. The whole package has improved since the first time I had him."
That first time was in the camp ahead of last November's 1-1 draw with Portugal. McKennie was one of several youngsters called in to play in the first game after the U.S. had failed to qualify for the World Cup. The U.S. fan base was clearly still in mourning, and there was a palpable sense of desperation as fans clamored for something positive to rally around. McKennie provided that with a well-taken finish that eventually helped a U.S. team earn a road draw against Portugal.
"I got a sense a day after that, for the U.S. fans, it was kind of a breath of fresh air," McKennie said of his first U.S. goal. "Unfortunately we didn’t qualify for the World Cup, but hopefully that game gave them a little sense of what could happen for the next cycle."
McKennie has resumed that role heading into June, as he and a collection of the best young prospects in the U.S. pipeline prepare for friendlies against Ireland and France. As much as beating a Bolivia C team provided promising debuts and encouraging signs for U.S. fans, it will be the friendlies in Europe that serve as the real tests for this young group.
Despite being just 19, McKennie has started to show signs of being a leader in this new group of prospects. He has a big personality that stands out in the current setup, and it's clear that a season of playing in the Bundesliga has added some extra swagger to his persona. That was evident in the 3-0 win against Bolivia, as he imposed his will in central midfield.
Ireland and France will offer significantly tougher challenges for McKennie, but he wouldn't have it any other way. He not only sees those matches as a chance for the U.S. team to develop more of a bond as a young group, he also knows it will be a good chance to show Schalke that he'll be ready when the club takes part in the Champions League.
"I think it still hasn’t hit me," McKennie said about the chance to compete in the Champions League for the first time. "I think whenever it comes time to start preparing for the next season it’ll hit me more. Being able to say I get to play Champions League next year, maybe against Ronaldo or Messi or all the other greats around the world is a dream come true. I’ve always watched it on TV and just hearing the Champions League song and then walking out, and the crowd, the atmosphere, the way it’s set up.
"Directly after we qualified for it, I was like, 'Oh God, we actually play Champions League next year','" McKennie said. "Nobody would have bet on it at the beginning of the season. Nobody would have put one Euro on Schalke besides the Schalke fans. Nobody would have ever said Schalke would finish in a Champions League spot, let alone the top two."
McKennie is fully aware that the challenge for playing time will only get tougher at Schalke, especially if the club makes the kind of roster additions teams normally do when they're preparing to play in the Champions League. The prospect of having more competition for minutes doesn't faze McKennie. After all, he has already beaten long odds before.
"My first year I also I don’t think many people would have thought I would have made it into the roster the way I did, how quickly I did," McKennie said. "I don’t really expect anything for next season. Leon Goretzka told me one time, 'When you expect things they always come different so you can’t expect anything.'
"Next year, yeah, of course there’s going to be more competition, but it’s not going to be much different as what I had the first season and look where it got me," McKennie said. "I’m confident in my abilities. I’m confident in the coach being confident in me. I played what, 25 matches this season? I don’t think most people would have thought that either."
McKennie won't need much motivation to get ready for the next set of challenges that lie ahead. He only needs to think back to a year ago, and the long list of accomplishments he was able to achieve in his first full year as a pro.
"I use it as motivation to try and get better every day so I can look back and nobody can say that this was a lucky year," McKennie said. "I want to show that I’ve deserved this and I deserve more."