Last weekend was a historical weekend for American soccer. Not only did you see a 17-year-old take the No. 10 position for a giant club in Borussia Dortmund as well as watch the first American-born -raised coach lead a team in the Bundesliga, but you also saw Weston McKennie become the first-ever U.S. international to play for Juventus.
It was not just a matter of McKennie, 22, earning a participation trophy with a few token minutes for one of the best and most talented teams in the world. Instead, the Texan went the distance and was an integral part of the nine-time reigning Serie A champion’s 3-0 win over Sampdoria.
Over the course of 90 minutes, McKennie had 94 touches, three shots, and had a pass completion that hovered around 90% - including many passes that displayed a long passing range. He was also a menace to Sampdoria defensively with his pressing, his tackling and his aerial presence.
While watching McKennie, it was very clear that the Italian giants did their homework when scouting the American player. Last season was a disaster for Schalke as it was winless in its last 16 games and there were times when McKennie struggled. But for the most part, McKennie didn’t play down to the level of his teammates or the difficult environment of the club. Instead, he would typically be the team’s best player and put up strong numbers both offensively and defensively. To succeed in that environment showcased both talent and maturity -- and that probably played a big role in the decision to invest heavily in McKennie.
It was also clear that new coach Andrea Pirlo had a more clearly defined role for McKennie than the more free-ranging one he had in Germany. Instead, this role for McKennie played to his skills and strengths.
It was a total team performance, which included McKennie, and it was one that left Pirlo satisfied at this stage of the season.
“I was expecting it because that is exactly what we are working on,” Prilo said in the post-match press conference. “Re-aggression once the ball is lost, the desire to press up front, preventative defending and we did well. We haven't been working together as a team for too long but some of these principles are already being internalized by the players.”
“As for playmakers, we have four midfielders who can play together like McKennie and [Adrien] Rabiot did,” Prilo added. “We have several solutions. It will depend on the type of game being played.”
But that was just one game and it was against a Sampdoria team that is very average by Serie A standards. For McKennie to have the same level of impact against Roma is an entirely different matter. Roma is coming off a fifth-place finish in 2019-20 and it is one of the biggest clubs in the country.
On Sunday, the stakes will be raised as Juventus travels south to the Italian capital. While expectations are always high among supporters and media for Roma, the club is coming off a brutal display in its season opener when it dropped a 3-0 decision to Hellas Verona on the road.
But when watching Juventus play in its season opener, it is clear that the club has bold ambitions and that there is clearly a different mood under Pirlo than when it was previously under Maurizio Sarri, who was fired in August, the day after Juventus was eliminated from the Champions League by Lyon.
“We have a new coach, a new staff, new ideas and the players are very involved in this,” midfielder Aaron Ramsey told Sky Sport Italia. “I think we are having more fun than last year. The training sessions are hard but there is also a little bit of joy.”
As for McKennie, he is clearly the player to watch coming into the weekend. He will no longer take teams by surprise and there is no doubt Roma has been watching film of the Juventus opener and taking note. When moving from Schalke to Juventus, McKennie will have elevated expectations from coaches, media and supporters.
At just 22, however, he already has multiple years of Bundesliga experience – including one season as the league’s runner-up. He has logged significant minutes in the Champions League, and is a cornerstone of the national team. At this point, history is on his side that he will handle the challenges of Juventus well.
Yanks Abroad: Five games to follow ...
Saturday, Sept. 26
Bayer Leverkusen vs. RB Leipzig (Tyler Adams) 9:20 am. (ESPN+)
Augsburg vs. Bor. Dortmund (Gio Reyna) 9:20 am. (ESPN+)
Arsenal vs. Tottenham (Alex Morgan) 12:15 pm. (The FA Player)
West Bromwich vs. Chelsea (Christian Pulisic) 12:30 pm. (NBC, Universo)
Sunday, Sept. 27
Roma vs. Juventus (Weston McKennie) 2:45 pm. (ESPN+)
Note: All times ET.