FRISCO — Weston McKennie, Little Elm’s own, won’t bedazzle the home folks this week in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He’s not even on the national roster. Both McKennie and Christian Pulisic, the U.S.’ best players abroad, are fresh off a hectic club season in Europe and in need of a little il riposo, apparently.
This latest omission isn’t fraught with anxiety like the last time McKennie was left off a national team. That snub came before he captained the U-19s to the 2016 Slovakia Cup title. Before he bypassed FC Dallas and Virginia for the Bundesliga and history as the first American to wear Juventus’ black and white. Before he became such a big deal in Italy, his dogs give him away.
Before he saw Ronaldo in his underwear.
“Oh my goodness! This is really him!”
Any way you look at it, it’s a long way from Little Elm to Turin. The route took him from Texas to Germany at the age of 6; back to Frisco and FC Dallas Academy at 11; a U-turn to Germany at 17; then, in August, at 22, to a pitch beside the world’s most photogenic athlete.
Such an unlikely path from small-town Texas kid to world-class midfielder was not without travails. His failure to make the U-17 World Cup team in 2015, for instance, was a fork in the road:
Continue his worldly ways?
Or go back to Texas?
He chose the academy where he cultivated what would have once seemed an inconceivable dream, and it’s made all the difference since.
“They helped me through a lot,” he said. “I went through some rough times with the U-17 team.
“They helped me put the pieces back together mentally and emotionally and physically as well.”
A late bloomer
Had Weston McKennie’s father not been in the Air Force, the McKennies probably wouldn’t have moved to Germany and Weston wouldn’t have had to find something to play besides American football and he wouldn’t be a budding international soccer star.
What would he be doing instead?
“I’d probably be playing American football, to be completely honest,” he said. “I’d be sitting here at 200 pounds.”
“I think I could have made it to the NFL if I’d stuck with it,” he said. “I’m one of those guys, whatever I do, I give a hundred percent to it.”
Even as a kid in Little Elm, he was so committed that after soccer he’d change into his football pads in the car while his mother drove him to his next game. He loved football. He’s reportedly a Washington fan; his father favors the Cowboys. But when the family moved to Germany, there was no place to play American football. Soccer became No. 1. Probably helped that he was a prodigy.
His first game, he scored eight goals. He was so good, he played up in age. Upon his return to Texas, he played as an 11-year-old at the FC Dallas Academy on 13-U teams. Because of the age difference, his athletic skills didn’t stand out early on, which is another way of saying there was no way to project that he’d end up where he is now. What set him apart, if anything, said Chris Hayden, academy director, was his maturity level. He was a born leader.
One of his favorite memories — the one he uses to gig other U.S. players, at least — was the U-16 team that won a national title and went undefeated. Except it didn’t. The team was forced to forfeit a game against Houston because one of its players had been registered incorrectly.
They couldn’t believe a perfect record had been ruined because of a bookkeeping error. McKennie was the first to smile. He told his teammates that even though they’d won fair and square, they needed this screw-up. They needed a chip for their shoulders.
“He was absolutely right,” Luchi Gonzalez said, smiling. “Don’t be a victim. He picked everyone up. Even me, the coach.”
FC Dallas Academy — ranked last year by Chasing a Cup, an international site, as the best of the MLS academies — is no kiddie camp. As Gonzalez, now FC Dallas’ coach, put it, they utilize a “tough love” approach. McKennie recalls mind games. Like practicing on a field near the MLS players, a visual reminder of why you were there and how hard you still had to work.
“They helped me in many ways I probably couldn’t even say,” McKennie said. “I really developed my mentality here. That’s one of my biggest assets, one of the biggest things I give to the game. Tracking back and standing up for my team, making sure my team stays mentally focused. Not giving up.
“Those traits are traits you can’t really teach, but you can improve them, and I think that’s what I did here at the academy.”
He got a refresher after getting left off the U-17 World Cup roster. The residency in Florida had been miserable. A soccer site described him as a “peripheral figure.” Gonzalez isn’t sure what the criteria for making the team was, but he knew McKennie, a late bloomer, hadn’t matured physically.
His head probably wasn’t in a good place, either.
“He was one of the players who would not travel on an international trip,” Hayden said. “That’s difficult. That’s difficult for a pro, much less a kid who’s developing. He was always confident, but in those moments it’s easy to second-guess yourself and ask if you’re doing what you should be doing.”
McKennie came home and went back to work at the academy. Still had the same confidence and talent, but, as he rehabbed his psyche, he grew stronger and more flexible.
“He went from a U-17 fringe player,” Hayden said, “to the captain of the U-18 national team. I’m not sure if that was an FC Dallas thing. What did we do? He came back, he continued to work hard and we continued to support him on that pathway. I give most of the credit to Weston. We had a lot people in support roles. We wanted to help him rekindle that confidence. It’s not that he ever lost it.”
Took him only a couple of weeks to get back to his old self, Gonzalez said. Only a little later came his decision to sign with FC Dallas, go to Virginia on a soccer scholarship or go back to Germany to play in the Bundesliga. There were no hard feelings, Gonzalez said, when he chose Schalke.
Gonzalez said he had no doubt that McKennie would make it. He was simply sad it wouldn’t be with FC Dallas.
“We worked together well to get him to the next step,” Gonzalez said, “to the point where we couldn’t afford him anymore.”
So . . . about that Cristiano Ronaldo sighting in his skivvies . . .
McKennie had just gone on loan from Schalke to Juventus in September when he visited the Serie A club’s facility. He went in for his physical just as Ronaldo was walking out.
“I did everything I could to act normal and not act like a total fanboy,” McKennie said, laughing, “because he’s going to be my teammate.”
Juventus made the arrangement permanent in March. Even included him next to Ronaldo when the club revealed its kits for next year. McKennie calls it a “true blessing” to play with a legend who’s taught him discipline and professionalism. The feeling appears mutual, and not just because McKennie brings so much energy box-to-box. Ronaldo calls him “Texas boy.” Italian fans take it as a great compliment that their soccer god actually knows where McKennie is from.
McKennie’s making a name for himself, and not just for his play on the pitch. He took to Twitter last year to protest the shooting of George Floyd. In a short video for Adidas, branded, “Standing for Equality,” he referenced racial epithets in Germany as well as his fears of driving at night in Dallas, “because I don’t know what’s going to happen if I get pulled over.”
He only gets back to Texas once a year because of his commitments. He said last month he enjoys the relative anonymity of home.
“In Italy,” he said, “people follow you for like, 200 yards and walk into stores that you’re going into and corner you and take photos.
“Even my dogs in Italy are recognizable, so it’s hard to get out.”
Better get used to it, because life will only get more complicated from here. He’s broken barriers and is on a course to captain the USMNT when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026. He’ll turn 23 next month. He would only be entering his prime in ’26.
Just how far could this kid from Little Elm go?
“The sky,” Hayden said, “is the limit.”
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