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Words: Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic
Mz Hidir

Growing up as a young boy in Delaware, Mark McKenzie was always tuned into the world’s game.

On Saturday mornings, it wouldn’t be unusual to catch him sitting with his father, parked in front of the TV, watching some of the greats of the last generation express themselves with AC Milan, forging an interest in the sport that still exists in the 23-year-old today.

“I watched a lot of soccer with my dad growing up,” McKenzie told DARBY this fall. “He's the one who put the game on in the mornings, sometimes as early as 7AM, making sure to put the European games on. We’d watch Serie A, Premier League. I’d watch a lot of AC Milan, specifically, back in the prime of Ronaldinho, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf, etc., a lot of guys that my dad liked, and I ended up liking as well.”

Enthralled by the joy that many of those players played with, McKenzie immediately became hooked by the sport. He knew that one day, he too wanted to play with the same ‘Joie de Vivre’ that icons like Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry did on his television, inspiring him to push to want to be a professional.

“From there, I started to find different players who I tried to emulate in some way, shape or form,” McKenzie continued. “Such as Ronaldinho, Robinho and Thierry Henry, who were my favourite attackers to watch, I really enjoyed watching and trying to just do things that they did, just seeing the joy that they had when playing, the freedom with which they played the game, and that helped my game when I got older.”

And now, McKenzie is getting a chance to live out that dream that he had to be a professional footballer.

Currently, an everyday starter for Belgian title contenders K.R.C Genk, who have stormed out to a strong first half of their league campaign, McKenzie is having the sort of season that many dream of having when they become a professional.

Chasing league glory for a top club, in front of a passionate fanbase, one that both pushes and supports you on that journey, it doesn’t get better than that, one that the young boy from Delaware won’t soon take for granted.

“To be a part of that, it’s something I’ve wanted for a while,” McKenzie explained. “I needed to keep working on my game, I felt that I needed to be pushed to another level, and being at Genk has provided me with that opportunity.”

“I’ve been here for two years, and have had my ups and downs, but they’ve made me get better and get more well-rounded as a person and a player.”

Yet, before McKenzie was able to push to where he is now today, he first forged his skills in a unique locale.

Born in the Bronx, New York, McKenzie then moved to Bear, Delaware at a young age, leaving him to grow up in a state more known for its industrial powers than sporting powers, especially when it comes to soccer.

Despite that, McKenzie fell in love with the sport, a love forged by those early mornings with his father. Because of that, despite playing nearly every sport that he had access to as a kid, soccer was the one that he ended up sticking with as he grew older.

Playing as a free-wheeling midfielder, emulating the flair of Ronaldinho whenever possible, he knew that he wanted to play this sport on the world’s biggest stages, and set out to make that goal a reality.

As a result, he decided to try out for the academy of the closest MLS team to him, the Philadelphia Union, with whom he’d eventually make after spending time in their pre-academy, before joining their academy proper. Despite having to commute a fair distance just to get to practices, he never once complained about having to do so, continuing to throw his passion behind his dream to one day play with the world’s greats.

And that commitment would quickly start to pay off for McKenzie. After a short stint in university with Wake Forest in 2017, McKenzie, who was now a centre-back after having picked up the position in the academy, eventually ended up signing a professional contract with the Union at the beginning of 2018, allowing him to make that jump up to MLS as a 19-year-old.

There, he’d quickly shine for the club, emerging as a rookie to watch in his first season, playing 20 games for the Union (regular season+playoffs), earning a nomination for MLS’s Rookie of the Year award along the way thanks to his strong play. Then, after losing his spot at the beginning of 2019, he won it back in time for the playoffs that year, a spot he wouldn’t relinquish as he headed in 2020.

That season, he found a new level of play, playing 26 games as the Union ended up winning the Supporters Shield as MLS’s top regular season team that year, their first-ever trophy as an MLS club. Fuelled by a mid-season transfer to European giants Celtic falling apart, as well as the lessons learned in past campaigns, McKenzie was a rock for the Union, too, earning him a spot in MLS’s best XI, an impressive feat for the 21-year-old homegrown centre back.

“Helping the team win the Supporters Shield, that was one of the greatest memories I have had in my football career,” McKenzie admitted. “Helping my club that I'd been at for nearly a decade win its first trophy, and not one that was a one-and-done, but something that we had to work for constantly and consistently throughout the entire season to win games to put ourselves in the position to win, that’s special, and it’s a bond that everyone on that team will share forever.”

And that excellence didn’t go unnoticed by others. Having had his move to Celtic break down in the summer, the list of suitors was much longer by the winter of 2021, leaving him no shortage of options as he got set to leave the Union.

It was bittersweet, given what he’d gone through with a lot of the Union’s homegrowns, many of which had gone from playing together as kids to lifting the Shield together. But McKenzie knew that the next step for him was to head to Europe, where he’d get a chance to take a step up in level.

As a result, after pondering where to go, he ended up choosing Belgium’s K.R.C Genk, a regular title contender in the Belgian league, as well as a typical participant in European competition.

It was a big move, as it meant McKenzie moving out of home for the first time, which is never easy for someone who was still just 21 at the time, but he knew that it was one that he knew he had to make, so he threw himself into this newest challenge headfirst.

“Yeah, I think it's vital for any player who wants to challenge themselves,” McKenzie explained. “I think it's important to get out of your comfort zone. I can’t express how excited I was to go to Europe, but there was also this element of heading into the unknown.”

And by doing so, that allowed him to get a taste of the reality that is the European game - nothing is given, but instead earned.

“Everybody's fighting to be at the top, whether it be it for your position in the team, your spot in the league, or to stay in Europe,” he explained. “And that's the mentality that you need to have, you have to want to be the best, and that's gonna demand a lot out of you.”

And it’s been a lesson he’s taken on the chin. After playing in 16 games (all competitions) in his first half-season with the club, he then ended up playing 27 games in 21-22 (all comps), a big step up in his play.

Then, this year, he’s gone even further, playing in 15 of Genk’s first 18 games (all comps) to start 22-23, including a run of 15 straight games after he was left on the bench to start the first three games of the campaign.

Coming as part of a run that has seen Genk go on a 16-game unbeaten streak, in which they’ve won an outstanding 15 games, it’s shown how far he’s come from his days as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, now sitting as a key contributor as one of the hottest teams in Europe at the moment.

“That has been a learning lesson for me,” McKenzie said of his time at Genk. “But it has made me better, more well rounded, and now in my third season with Genk, and I’ve played a big consecutive run of games while we’ve been unbeaten, which is huge to be able to be a part of right now.”

That success with the Union and Genk, has allowed McKenzie to accomplish another childhood goal - playing for the US Men’s National Team.

Having played over 20 games at the youth level during his time at the Union, he then managed to make his full debut back in February of 2020, right at the beginning of what was about to be his breakout year with Philadelphia.

Since then, he’s picked up nine further caps, solidifying himself as a regular member of the team, something that he certainly doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s special, man,” McKenzie enthused of his time with the US. “It’s surreal almost. And that goes to my time with the youth National Team, that first time you stand and you hear the national anthem, and you’ve got your arms around guys you know that you’re going to go onto the pitch and battle with, it’s surreal. To step off the pitch and say that you represented your country, it pushes you when you come back home to put your best foot forward and battle for what the US stands for, as that’s the dream of any young athlete who has had the opportunity to represent their country.”

Ever since he put on that jersey for the first time, it left him with a feeling that has driven him on to find a new level as a player, knowing that he has been able to become one of a select few that get a chance to have such a privilege.

Having put in a lot of work throughout the years to make it that far, it has made every moment where he’s played for the US that much more special, with his debut, in particular, being a game that he’ll never forget.

“Putting on the jersey officially as a member of the national team was a full circle moment, not just for myself, but also my family, who has invested a lot in me and sacrificed a lot to get to where I am today,” he continued. “And I think that's what makes it even more incredible, just seeing how far I've come and seeing how much time has been put into this, seeing how many people have helped push me to get to this level, how many resources were needed, how many connections we used when I needed things like a carpool to get to training.”

“All of those things flashed in front of my eyes as soon as I put the shirt on. It was funny, when I was about to step on, I felt all of these emotions, and I was like “oh my gosh, it’s real, it’s happening Mark”, as I kind of blacked out for a second processing everything and seeing that it was a dream come true, representing my country at the highest level”

But while making his US debut will be something that he never forgets, one day, there will be one thing that can top it - playing at a World Cup.

Unfortunately, that dream will have to wait for now, as he narrowly missed out on the US’s 2022 World Cup squad despite his strong form, but given that he’ll still be 27 years of age by the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around, his dream is far from over.

In fact, given that World Cup will be held in the US, Canada and Mexico, he could be set to achieve that dream in front of friends and family on home soil, something that could make that bittersweet feeling of missing out on 2022 fade away quickly.

“Playing for the US is something bigger than you,” McKenzie said. “As there is so much history, you have so many people who came before you that represented the country well, and are now passing the torch to this next generation. So one of the most special moments I’m looking forward to is when I'm standing there on the pitch, listening to the national anthem and singing with my teammates.”

Especially when seeing how the US tends to rally around their teams at this tournament, it could be a special feeling, one that pushes him to want to now make it a reality.

“It’s about helping your team achieve something greater than just the team's success at that tournament, but also being the pride of your country,” he continued “Leaving everything you’ve got on the pitch to represent the millions of people back home who have stopped what they're doing to fully support, that's something that you can't even express in words, because it's something bigger than you, that’s something that is going to last long after we're done playing, it’s going to be in the history books.”

“And that’s how I feel about it - the World Cup is a dream, that’s something that you dream about as a kid, you’ve got your posters, and you see it everywhere, and you know that you just want to be there.”

And speaking of that unifying feeling that playing the US provides, that’s the part of representing the US right now that McKenzie is proudest of - the fact that the US does indeed represent what makes the country beautiful.

An incredibly diverse team, one filled with minorities and people of colour, they’re also a team that represents the modern United States, one that has built itself off of the back of immigrants and refugees, and is inclusive to an incredible wealth of culture.

Which is key. During what has been an incredibly divisive time in the country, one in which some have tried to take away the diversity that makes the country so rich, to have an incredibly diverse US team do what they did is powerful.

Especially given that soccer has always been seen as an elitist sport in the US, a direct contrast to the inclusive game that it is typically known as worldwide, seeing that diversity shows how far the US has come in that regard.

So for McKenzie, who is Black, seeing that diversity develop on this team is huge, and he’s immensely proud to be a part of that push for change.

Having grown up during a time when there weren’t many players like him playing at the highest levels in the US, he knows first-hand what it means to have representation, something he is looking to pass down to the next generation.

“Representation is huge,” McKenzie stressed. “When I was younger, I didn’t see a lot of guys like myself playing, I didn't see many coaches that were my skin complexion. It's getting better, but I think the more people of colour that we can put into sought-after positions, the better, as that will inspire kids to say “hey, I can do it too, he looks like me, he comes from where I come from.”

“You can relate in some way, shape, or form with the next generation, as you can give them that motivation to achieve their goals, battle through obstacles, and get after whatever they’re after, as they’ve seen other people do it as well.”

“It helped me that I had guys before me that I looked up to, I saw them playing, and then I was able to talk and get wisdom from them, get some mentorship from them to understand how they overcame obstacles and any difficulties that came their way. And that’s what I want to do for those coming after us.”

“We’ve got a special national team, we have so many different people from different backgrounds, and we have so much diversity that is ultimately going to help us in this tournament, as we have unique experiences that everybody's gone through. That’s created this tight-knit bond, as we know that if we ever get stuck in a situation on the field, we have a chemistry deeper than just football that can help us.”

Because of that, it has truly added meaning behind each time the USMNT plays. Any time the US does well in sport, that can unite a country, but to see a US team that actually represents the country's rich and diverse culture succeed? That’s the sort of unifier that can make a big difference, adding importance to each goal, save and win the team is able to have.

“The world stops for the World Cup,” he explained. “Everybody's watching their TVs, or inflatable screens, or their big-screen projectors, watching the games with their friends and family, and are eating, laughing, just having a good time. I think that's what it's about, bringing people together for this beautiful game, as we call it, right? You know, it seems so simple and seems so silly at times to think that so many people are watching 22 players just run after a ball, but when that ball goes into the back of the net, it’s a unifier”

It’s pushing McKenzie to now make sure he’s involved in that when 2026 comes around. At 23, his journey toward the top is far from over, as he’s looking to prove that this is just the beginning of what’s to come from him as a player.

So look for him to keep pushing to new heights with Genk and the US, as he chases his World Cup dream, one that continues to fuel him each day.

Starting with a quest to win a title with Genk, before looking to climb to new heights from there, he’s using every chance he’s got to push himself forward each day, knowing that one day, he can look back on his career with pride, knowing that the kid from Delaware showed that nothing is indeed impossible as long as you keep believing in yourself.

“It’s been challenging, but on some level, it made me wonder, how can I adapt and grow while I'm in this environment?” he pondered on his journey to this point. “How can I further take strides in my career in my game, so I can put myself in contention to make a bigger step in the future?

“I’m always pushing to be better, to achieve more and to push myself to my limits in my career.”

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