There was a time where United States men's national team fans were thrilled when there was an American player at a clubs like Fulham and Hannover. Nowadays, it's common to see those familiar faces at the biggest and best clubs in the world -- from Bayern Munich to Barcelona; from Chelsea to Dortmund. For United States men's national team defender Mark McKenzie, he wanted to find a place where he could test European waters, get used to the increased competition and style of the European game and see where that takes him.
Craving even more coverage of the world's game? Listen below and subscribe to ¡Qué Golazo! A Daily CBS Soccer Podcast where we take you beyond the pitch and around the globe for commentary, previews, recaps and more.
The 21-year-old's journey has started at Belgian club Genk, where he's made three appearances, two of which were starts. But the former Philadelphia Union star will tell you those smaller clubs know a thing or two about producing household names.
"I had already known about Genk for a minute, just studying European football and what not," McKenzie told CBS Sports on Monday. "Being [of Jamaican descent] I've known about Leon Bailey. Being a defender, I've known about Kalidou Koulibaly, watching the best players in the world like Kevin de Bruyne, who came out of the academy … We all know they have produced a plethora of talent. I felt like I could take the next steps to a top-five league, but I wasn't necessarily fine-tuned enough yet.
"I needed to really understand the European environment, understand the European game, the ins and outs. Get over there to get my feet wet, and from there gain the experience."
And he's done just that in his early stages in the country, despite what was a shaky arrival that saw his COVID-19 test results not accepted at the airport. He's been in the country for three weeks, has his own place and car, and jumped right into training. McKenzie has earned the trust of the coaching staff already, while becoming close with teammate and fellow NFL fan Jere Uronen.
"It gave me an idea of what the league was like, the environment, the group, the staff. Pretty much the organization from top to bottom," he said. "After really learning and being on the pitch, and able to build chemistry with the players, the staff and the medical team, it's been really nice. Three games, two starts and an appearance on the bench. I got the full experience against Brugge kind of jumping in there. My first match in about a month.
"It gave me a lot of faith that the staff have the trust in me to go out there and perform."
McKenzie is one of the latest handful of Americans making the jump to Europe. Right back Bryan Reynolds joined AS Roma, while Orlando City striker Daryl Dike landed at Barnsley. He has seen all of those Americans make the move, and he thinks that is what it takes for some to really progress.
"In order to grow, you have to put yourself in an uncomfortable environment, and then from there, you are able to learn lessons on a daily basis. And take those lessons, apply them to your game and grow even more," McKenzie said. "I think the intensity, the sharpness, the speed of play, the mental aspect, the IQ these players have here is very intriguing."
McKenzie is hopeful that he'll continue to get minutes with his club in third place in the league and hoping to finish strong, sitting 14 points behind leaders Club Brugge. While he is focused on his club career, he knows there is a chance to really make a mark with a national team that has a solidified starter at center-back in John Brooks. But there's a spot open next to Brooks, with players like Matt Miazga and Aaron Long to inexperienced, younger guys like McKenzie and Chris Richards trying to fill it.
"Each player in consideration for the World Cup should have that mentality, should have that chip on their shoulder and say, 'I deserve to be in that [conversation],'" he said. "It is something each one of us do have, and that is what is going to make the center-back competition more exciting."
As for now, it is about fighting for trophies with the club still in the Belgian Cup, while also progressing. McKenzie credits MLS for where he is today, and he's pleased with how he has improved on his left foot, but he knows there is more needed to take his game to the next level, with one goal in mind.
"To improve my dominance in terms of defending inside the [18-yard box], marking inside the box. Being more aggressive and attacking the ball, especially in aerial duels," said the 6-foot McKenzie. "Everyone says I'm undersized and not the typical center-back… I feel like I have the capabilities and the athleticism to do what a 6-foot-4 center-back can sometimes do. I've got to be sharper at it, quicker to the spot. I've got to be ahead of the game in that sense because I am a little undersized. At the same time, the tenacity is there, the intensity is there, the fire is there."