With the World Cup ending, the focus returns to the club leagues that been on break for more than month. From an American perspective, on of the players who wasn't in Qatar will be of particular interest.
Mark McKenzie, 23, is having a breakout season in Belgium’s first division. When the Bronx native was sold from the Philadelphia Union to KRC Genk after the 2020 MLS season, he was fresh off being named to the league’s Best XI after helping his club win the Supporters’ Shield.
But the transfer to Belgium was tough for the first 18 months. Playing time was uneven for McKenzie primarily because Genk struggled to sell its top central defender, Jhon Lucumí. Lucumi was finally sold to Bologna last summer and the path was cleared for McKenzie to start at Genk.
When McKenzie moved into the starting lineup, Genk started to win at an incredible pace. The club’s last game on Nov. 13, a 2-0 away win over Anderlecht, was its 10th Belgian Pro League win in a row. In its last 16 games, Genk has won 15 times and tied once
A lot has gone into the team’s success. There have been personal changes among the players, such as McKenzie moving into the lineup. But the biggest has arguably been new coach Wouter Vrancken, who took over for Bernd Storck in May.
“As a collective group, the team has done a really good job of getting behind the coach’s way of play - on both sides of the ball,” McKenzie told Soccer America. “Whether it'd be defensively or offensively, I think guys have really bought into it and are committed to making sure we work out the kinks. Down to an individual level, I think we have guys who may not necessarily have been given a chance in previous seasons and are now stepping up and bringing fresh ideas to the pitch. We have guys all around the pitch who are stepping up in big ways.
“Of course, with a new coach, he brings in a new style, a new set of eyes, a new perspective on the game, and on the way the team should play. With that, it gives everyone a fresh slate.”
The 23-year-old Mark McKenzie played in two 2022 World Cup qualifiers and has earned 10 U.S. caps.
McKenzie’s rise also comes at a good time for his international prospects. While he was not on the roster for the World Cup in Qatar, the next cycle will see fierce competition in central defense. Aaron Long (30) and Tim Ream (35) could be phased out of the player pool because of age. Walker Zimmerman is 29.
But McKenzie will have to compete with several other young central defenders who will be entering their prime years during the next cycle. Erik Palmer-Brown is a regular starter at Troyes in Ligue 1. Chris Richards is a highly regarded, but injury prone, defender at Crystal Palace. Cameron Carter-Vickers will remain in the picture from the World Cup team. Miles Robinson played a key role during World Cup qualifying, was injured for Qatar, but should return in 2022. James Sands is also a regular starter at Rangers and was a 2021 Gold Cup starter.
McKenzie is in a opportune situation as he, along with Carter-Vickers at Celtic in Scotland are the only Americans playing for clubs atop the standings among the better leagues in Europe.
With Genk in first place by 10 points atop the table, McKenzie is eyeing a spot in the Champions League next season, and he is enjoying the pressure that awaits Genk starting on Dec. 26 when the season resumes with a visit to Kortrijk.
“It's the pressure that you want,” McKenzie said. “Ultimately, you want to be at the top of the table and in the driver's seat for the league. When you're in that position, it's even harder to stay because everybody's trying to knock you off of it. And with the run we've had in the last 13, 14 games, it's been incredible. But it also creates this importance and this urgency with each and every game to make sure that the last match wasn't just a fluke. We have to raise the standard again.
“It's difficult to pinpoint emotions because we also try to mitigate those as well. I’ve tried to reiterate that having been to both sides of it here at Genk as well, being able to lift the cup and have a great playoff run in my first six months here and then last season pretty much being a failure on all fronts — individually and also collectively and not really finishing where we knew we could. It’s been nice so far, to say the least, but second half of the season is a different beast.”
The 2022-23 season has seen McKenzie move into a more experienced American in Europe and away from the kid who moved to Belgium two years ago. Many of the American players who made the jump from MLS to Europe around that time – Brenden Aaronson, Richards, Reggie Cannon, Joe Scally — have matured impressively.
Much has been made of the camaraderie among American players in Europe and just as McKenzie had fellow American players who had been there for years who he could turn to when he arrived in Europe, McKenzie looks forward to serving the mentor role to the newest players who arriving in Europe. Players such as Ricardo Pepi, who arrived earlier this year and Paxten Aaronson, who recently completed a lucrative transfer from the Philadelphia Union to Eintracht Frankfurt.
“It's something that I'm always leaving the door open for, you know, especially with the young guys coming up," McKenzie says. "I never want it to be like they're doing it on their own, because I had guys before me doing it and help me along the way. I'd love to definitely be that person for guys who are coming up.”
As McKenzie continues to advance his career in Europe and with a spot in the 2023-24 Champions League well within reach, he is also connected to his past. Shortly before the World Cup break, McKenzie watched MLS Cup as his former club, the Philadelphia Union, lost to LAFC in a thrilling final where Gareth Bale equalized in the 120th minute and former Philadelphia Union goalkeeper John McCarthy came off the bench for LAFC to make two saves in the shootout to be named the game’s MVP.
“It was a roller-coaster,” McKenzie said of watching MLS Cup from Belgium. “I'm sitting here screaming and jumping up and down and I'm yelling at the refs and I'm pissed off because we got scored on. I'm like: Oh my gosh, we're about to win MLS Cup. And then Gareth Bale goes and scores a goal in the 126th minute, Daniel [Gazdag] slips on the PK… It was difficult but I'm happy for Johnny as well. You know, I knew Johnny when I was coming up and he's a hardworking guy, a city boy to the heart.”
“A tough night just for Philly in itself, because I know how hard the guys fought and how much they wanted it,” McKenzie added. “It's a testament to the work that Jim Curtin put in to get the team this far, to bring another trophy back to Philly with the Eastern Conference. Now it's just getting over that next step. It's funny, I look at the progression we've made and going from not being in playoffs, to then winning the Supporters Shield, and now getting to the cup. I'm really pulling for the group.”
But just as his former club is getting closer and closer, McKenzie is as well in Belgium. Next week will see KRC Genk resume their First Division season as the team to beat, with a Champions League spot on the line.