Growing pains or immaturity? McKennie's status 'remains to be seen' as USMNT face cycle-defining Honduras trip

Weston McKennie Juventus 2021-22Getty Images

The U.S. men's national team are a young team, and when you're a young team, there will be growing pains.

But there's a difference between growing pains and immaturity. And, right now, it's hard to tell exactly which side of that Weston McKennie falls into.

Just about an hour before the USMNT's World Cup qualifier against Canada, a crucial match even so early in the cycle, U.S. Soccer announced that McKennie would be suspended for "a violation of team policy". Moments later, McKennie himself took to Instagram to clarify that he had been suspended for the game for breaching the team's Covid protocols.

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"Unfortunately, I am suspended for tonight's match due to a violation of team Covid protocols," McKennie wrote. "I am sorry for my actions, I will be cheering hard for the boys tonight and hope to be back with the team soon."

And so, with the U.S. staring down what turned out to be a deflating 1-1 draw with Canada, one of the team's best players was barred from participating. And, even with details sparse, it appears that McKennie's status for Wednesday is also up in the air.

"It was a team policy and I'm not going to get into specifics on it," USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter said. "I'll just leave it at that."

"I can't speak for Weston, you would have to ask him but I'm sure he is [disappointed]," he continued. "I know he wanted to be out there with the boys."

When a follow-up asked regarding McKennie's status for Wednesday, Berhalter said: "That remains to be seen."

On the surface, it's hard to condemn McKennie, a player that has evolved into one of the team's leaders in recent years. The young midfielder is one of the program's most radiant personalities, a happy-go-lucky, emotive young star that is one of the most important pieces in the USMNT puzzle.

With coronavirus protocols constantly changing, it would be understandable if McKennie accidentally ran afoul of them. In a world where 40,000 people are allowed to attend the game but players are still facing restrictions, it's easy to see why there would be some level of frustration that could lead to a mistake. Whether that mistake is an interaction with a fan or a food run or something similar, honest mistakes are entirely possible.

We still don't know exactly what McKennie did and whether that mistake was honest or stupid, although the phrasing "violation of team policy" doesn't look great. Regardless of that, this isn't McKennie's first issue with Covid protocols.

In April, McKennie, Paulo Dybala and Arthur were suspended ahead of Juve's derby clash with Torino for violating Covid protocols. The trio's suspension came after McKennie, who tested positive for the coronavirus last October, hosted a small gathering at his residence that was shut down by police for violating local rules. 

In the months since, McKennie explained on the Crack Podcast that the gathering was a poker night between team-mates and a few friends, not anything malicious. But, regardless, that poker night broke rules and earned him a club suspension in the process.

Once is a mistake. Twice? That's a concern. 

Yes, things have been difficult for players over the last year-and-a-half. Of course, physical and mental fatigue has set in as players have been more open about their mental health struggles in the wake of the pandemic. And, no, McKennie's Covid breach seems like it was more foolish than cruel.

But, even at just 23 years old and even with the Covid fatigue that so many people are dealing with, there's no excuse for things to go so wrong before such a big moment. For what was something close to a must-win game, McKennie earned himself a suspension that knocked him out of contention when the team needed him.

And that suspension came just as the U.S. dealt with another Covid scare. After missing Christian Pulisic for the opening game of qualifiers in El Salvador as he recovered from his own positive test, the U.S. lost Zack Steffen on Sunday as he tested positive.

Would the USMNT have performed better with McKennie on the field? Maybe. Could he have helped conjure another goal at some point? Who knows. But, either way, McKennie's team-mates were left disappointed as they admitted that his abence was a setback.

"Obviously it's not an ideal situation," said midfielder Tyler Adams, "because he's such an important player, important character to this team. He brings what he does on the field but, even off the field, he brings the team together.

"So, yeah, it's a little disappointing, but it was that next-man-up mentality. I think Sebastian [Lletget] came in and played a good game today, so everyone needs to be ready, but it's obviously very disappointing.

"We found out about Weston this afternoon, right after we had a little activation with the team and then a team meeting. We found out in the team meeting.

"To be fair, it hurts us like, him as a person, as a player. I don't think it affected the team too much. We were ready to come out and compete and I thought that was good."

Weston McKennie USMNT 2021Getty Images

USMNT captain Christian Pulisic added: "We try not to let that whole situation affect us too much. It was just about putting all that aside and focusing on the task at hand, really. Obviously we missed him today, but it's just about moving forward and trying to win games."

The next game comes Wednesday, as the U.S. look to get their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track. Two points from two games isn't enough, and the U.S. will be desperate for a win in a difficult environment in Honduras after squandering their first two games.

Whether McKennie is a part of that process remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen if Sunday's setback has any lasting ramifications. McKennie's suspension should serve as a message not just to him, but to the other 50 or so players in the pool, showing that there are consequences for your actions.

A team, especially one as talented as the USMNT, can endure some growing pains throughout a qualifying cycle. They can endure some difficult moments, on and off the field, and still feel good about earning their spot in Qatar.

Because, when dealing with growing pains, you may drop a point here and there. But, when growing pains edge closer to immaturity, more than points are at stake as you could squander a spot in the team or, worst of all, a World Cup qualifying cycle.