'I'll grab it with both hands' - Celtic-linked McKenzie embracing transfer rumours and USMNT expectations

Higuain McKenzie Miami Philadelphia Union 2020Getty

Mark McKenzie is not too worried about the rumours regarding his future that continue to swirl, and they have been swirling for quite some time.

For months, the Philadelphia Union defender has been linked with a move to Europe, making him one of several young MLS stars tipped to eventually outgrow the league.

He has been most prominently linked to Celtic since the start of the season, though more teams could certainly come calling as a result of his latest performances in MLS.

Over the last few weeks McKenzie has raised his game, evolving from one of the top young defenders in MLS to one of the top defenders of any age. He is now one of the most reliable centre-backs in the league at the age of just 21.

In his latest outing McKenzie was largely responsible for keeping Gonzalo Higuain quiet in the Union's 3-0 win over Inter Miami. On the day Higuain was limited to the fewest touches of any Miami player, and keeping the Argentina forward out of the game can be credited to McKenzie and defensive partner Jakob Glesnes.

With performances like that come rumours, and with rumours come excitement. But those reports also lead to pressure, something McKenzie is comfortable dealing with as his dream move edges closer and closer.

"The dream, of course, is to play in Europe," McKenzie told Goal. "That is the ultimate goal. But I’m here at Union at the moment and I'm focused on helping the club in any way I can.

"But if there is an opportunity, I'm ready and I'm prepared to take the next step. I’m confident that I can take such an opportunity with both hands. However, I'm focusing on my game right now and help win a title this year.

"Personally, no (the rumours do not affect me). I try and filter out as much as I can. There is a lot of stuff that goes on in the industry. I can only control my game and everything I can do.

"I can’t control rumours nor am I interested in them. The important thing is performing day in and day out. That is most important. If I do not perform, no opportunity will materialise.

"It is all about me working and improving day in and day out. Everything else will follow."

He added: "Ultimately, it is a positive thing for the young guys in MLS. Seeing that there is a path to Europe from MLS is great, and opportunities will come if you work hard. It is on you to work hard and grab them when they come. Of course, you need to handle the pressure that comes with it."

McKenzie is not the only member of the Union feeling that pressure, with team-mate Brendan Aaronson having also been heavily linked to Europe.

Most recently the midfielder has drawn interest from Red Bull Salzburg, a club managed by American Jesse Marsch that is fresh off making quite an impression in the Champions League last season.

Both Aaronson and McKenzie are products of YSC Academy, the Union-affiliated school that has allowed the club to emerge as one of the best talent developers in MLS.

Over the past few years the club has developed plenty of talented players, but the key is to now sell those players on to clubs that can allow them to thrive in Europe.

McKenzie Zardes 2020Getty

Like every young player in the U.S., McKenzie is looking towards those that are performing well abroad. Players such as Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna have emerged as stars over the last few years, and McKenzie is determined to join them at some point or another.

To do that he has had to evolve his game. After making 19 appearances in 2018 and seven in 2019, he has taken a major leap forward this season. His defending has improved, allowing him to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Higuain.

But perhaps his biggest development has come with his ability on the ball, having developed into a significantly better passer throughout his standout 2020 season.

"I've always tried to improve my passing. It's an area of my game that I'm very confident in. I've been a ball-playing centre-back for a long time now. And in the highest level of football in America, it is an important trait," he said.

"A modern centre-back is the start of the attack in a team. His passing out from the back is crucial and is a very important tool for the side. I need to improve more but I’m taking massive strides and I'm putting the effort to make it my strong suit. 

"I want to be the centre-back that strikers hate to play against. You always need to do your primary job well and that is defending. You need to help keep clean sheets and become the defender that strikers do not want to go up against."

With that in mind, McKenzie has studied several players that opposition forwards despised, including one current Real Madrid star that remains among the very best in the game.

"For example, Sergio Ramos. He is the type of defender against whom strikers start to question themselves," McKenzie said. "Being that type of a dominant and aggressive defender is something I want to improve.

"I think I can be more consistent and be at a point where strikers see my name and think this is a guy we don't want to go up against."

Mark McKenzie USMNT 2020Getty

Reaching the level of Ramos is a big ask for a 21-year-old defender but, even at his current ability, McKenzie has the ability to be a key player for the U.S. men's national team.

The defender earned his first cap this past winter, featuring against Costa Rica as part of the annual January camp. That appearance came after McKenzie established himself as a regular across the U.S. youth national teams, having worn the captain’s armband at the most recent Under-20 World Cup in Poland.

Under head coach Gregg Berhalter, the U.S. plays a system that relies on defenders being comfortable on the ball. Full-backs need to be dangerous going forward, goalkeepers need to feel comfortable with the ball at their feet and, in McKenzie's case, centre-backs need to be able to initiate the attack with their passing.

As that part of his game has evolved, McKenzie could grow into a key figure under Berhalter in the coming years. And, if that happens, this may not be the last time that McKenzie draws interest from some of Europe's most famous teams.

"I have the confidence in myself to play well for the USMNT if I get the opportunity," he said. "I'm very confident and capable of representing my country and playing as the central defender.

"I think I’ve shown that ability. I'm not perfect and I can improve on my composure while playing out from the back, stepping into the midfield and cutting out passes. I'm not the perfect defender but I’m improving.

"I have the confidence to go there and compete. And I’m sure If I get an opportunity, I will grab it with both hands."