USMNT

From the film room: Weston McKennie plays football

I am so sorry.
Weston McKennie photo courtesy US Soccer Federation.

You may know him as a fußball (now calcio?) player. But before he became one of the USMNT’s brightest young stars, Weston McKennie played football, Texas-style. The Athletic‘s Paul Tenorio has the video evidence, courtesy of McKennie’s father, John.

Since we are an insane person (see: referring to self with royal “we”), let us break down said film*

The film

*Background for the uninitiated: this is literally what I do professionally. Just not with elementary schoolers who have since become world-class soccer players. Usually.

Strengths

McKennie shows good power on his opening kickoff. He has a more advanced understanding of activating the entire body from the plant foot through the hips to drive his leg through the ball.

When McKennie gets past the first level of defense with the ball in his hands, he has enough speed to run away from potential tacklers. Even those with an angle probably will not have the athleticism to catch up to him when he builds up a head of steam.

McKennie has very good balance with the ball. He keeps his eyes up with the intention of making each run as big a play as possible, and thanks to that balance, glancing blows aren’t going to knock him off-balance even if they come from out of his range of vision to the side or from behind. The same applies to attempted tacklers: when opponents try to hit him in the chest or above, he has the ability to run through the contact using his balance and savvy, rather than pure strength. He also has decent agility. While some of his moves take him an extra beat to get from setup through completion, the horizontal distance covered (and the quickness with which he covers it) on a jump-cut are impressive.

McKennie shows little fear in laying big hits in his brief defensive clips. He shows good timing to break up incoming passes by laying a shoulder, and packs enough of a punch that he can bring ball-carriers down – or eliminate blockers – without using perfect technique.

Based on a one-still-image sample size, McKennie shows strong durag discipline in the home. This will allow his wave game to remain strong. Also he appears to be wearing an officially licensed Major League Baseball diaper?

Areas of Improvement

While McKennie’s leg is strong, he doesn’t have the power to drive the ball for touchbacks. When future opponents have film on his kickoffs, they won’t be caught by surprise, and will be in position to set up a return. There’s a risk that McKennie’s long kicks may prevent his team from maintaining coverage lanes when the return specialist has more runway to set up his blocks.

While McKennie has an eye for daylight as a ball-carrier, he has a bit of a pinball style. That won’t translate to higher levels when a slimmer player such as himself is facing bigger, stronger, faster players in the front seven. His jab step in the hole can be a little laborious and he involves too much of his body in the fake. Then, he has a tendency to bounce off his offensive linemen as he is too urgent to get upfield, rather than smoothly cutting to find open field. Like many young players, he also is too intent on bouncing his runs outside, trusting his speed rather than his vision. That won’t be possible when the caliber of competition is better.

McKennie jumps when fielding punts, which adds too much chaos to the equation. He’ll open his body up to big hits in that process, and lunging for the ball rather than letting it come to him can mean errors in catching cleanly with his hands, and potential muffs.

McKennie’s running success comes primarily out of the Power-I formation. While his skills are transferrable to other formations (might I suggest free eight in a 4-3-3?), he’ll have to adapt his game to a more modern offensive philosophy, with the adjustments necessary in what he’s reading ahead of him.

While he does have the ability to lay a big hit defensively, he’ll have to show more tackling discipline when the opponents are more polished and capable of bouncing off such hits. Using the arms to wrap up and the legs to drive through to complete the tackle will be important. His pure power also doesn’t show up much on his offensive film, though he does appear to have the strength and mentality to be a power runner in addition to his current finesse-style running back.

Overall

While his highlight reel is brief, it shows plenty of potential for a young player. McKennie’s athletic gifts are obvious, and as he continues to mature and add polish to his game, it should blossom. This player has power-5 potential as a running back and potentially in the defensive backfield as he continues to mature. Depending on how tall he ends up, a dominating force at outside receiver is a possibility, as well.

Alternatively, he could concentrate on soccer and develop into a $30-million central midfielder by the time he’s 22. Either way.

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