Over the past several years, European teams have begun to realise the value of the United States.
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America has rapidly become an important market for overseas clubs, with teams routinely traveling to the U.S. during pre-season in an attempt to build an American brand.
Concurrently, we have also seen the rise of a new generation of American stars.
Yet, Weston McKennie is now set to take the biggest step of them all, as he joins Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrea Pirlo and Juventus in one of the biggest transfers in American soccer history.
Juventus announced on Saturday that the club has completed the signing of McKennie on a one-year loan deal worth €4.5 million, with Juve holding an €18.5m (£16.5m/$22m) purchase option, completing a swift move for the now-former Schalke star.
To call the move a surprise is an understatement. Juve had not been linked with the USMNT star for more than a few hours before reports emerged that the deal was almost finalised.
Entering the summer, it was made clear that McKennie was on the move, but it was not exactly clear where he would end up.
For weeks, the U.S. men’s national team star has been linked with a departure, with Southampton, Newcastle and Hertha Berlin the teams most frequently listed as a potential landing spot for the midfielder.
As those links continued, there was a hint of disappointment. McKennie, at just 22, is a Champions League-proven player coming from a big – if troubled – club like Schalke. All three felt like a sidestep more than a step up. Despite that, all three would have been good landing spots, decent clubs with a bit of history and ambition.
But McKennie did not end up settling for a good landing spot or a decent new club. Instead, he went big, and Juventus went big by signing him to rebuild their suddenly-bare midfield.
For the cynical out there, the move can be seen as part of Juventus’ pursuit to grow their global brand. It was a common criticism hurled at Chelsea when they signed Pulisic, but that was before the former Borussia Dortmund star proved his detractors wrong with a strong end to his first season in the Premier League.
Regardless, McKennie is not at the same level as Pulisic, and it has been suggested that the transfer may have been conducted solely so as to pair a young, Black, socially aware U.S. international with the global superstar that is Ronaldo.
But even if the deal does increase the popularity of the Bianconeri brand across the Atlantic, there is an argument to suggest that it can work as well on the field as it could do off it.
It is a league that has lagged behind the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga in terms of an American audience, with the first two benefitting from top American stars while the latter has a player named Lionel Messi carrying the torch — at least for now.
The signing of McKennie will bring new American eyes to Serie A, only building on the audience that has grown since players such as Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic went to Italy.
With McKennie likely set to be a key figure in the USMNT’s push towards the World Cups in 2022 and 2026, American fans will no doubt be invested in how another one of their own adjusts to playing at a club as massive as Juventus.
But it is not just that off-the-field aspect, as, following the departures of Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira, Juventus are certainly in the market for midfield help.
The likes of Aaron Ramsey, Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot are all still part of Pirlo’s squad, but this is a club that needs to get younger by bringing in players for both the Ronaldo-led present and the post-Portuguese future.
Of the 20 players to make at least 10 Juve appearances last season, only two – Bentancur and Matthijs de Ligt – are under the age of 25, indicating a major need for new blood in Turin.
The Italian champions tend to stick with proven commodities, as Juventus are a team that is always in “win-now” mode and, knowing that, McKennie will need to quickly prove himself if he hopes to win a regular spot in Pirlo’s XI.
Throughout his time at Schalke, McKennie has demonstrated that he can play in a variety of roles, having been deployed as a defensive midfielder and a box-to-box player while also occasionally filling in in defence when required.
In some ways, McKennie’s versatility has been his Achilles heel, as the American was routinely shifted to fill gaps for a deteriorating Schalke squad rather than developed at one specific position.
And because of that, there is some risk to this move. There is still some confusion over where McKennie will play for this Juventus team and how Pirlo will look to utilise him.
Pirlo’s tactics remain a bit of a mystery, but, when a team pays up to €30m (£27m/$36m) including a loan fee and potential bonuses to sign a player, they do so with the intention of giving him every opportunity to succeed in a situation that maximises their talents.
Still, this is a massive step up in McKennie’s career as he moves to a team that is routinely among the best in the world.
Taking that leap, especially to a club as determined as Juventus, will require an adjustment period. McKennie has played in the Champions League for Schalke, sure, but Juventus are not a team content with just a seat at Europe’s top table; they want to win the whole thing.
In the best-case scenario, McKennie plays a part in helping Juventus push for more trophies. His all-energy style will add new life to a team that looked entirely stagnant in their final matches of the campaign, with Maurizio Sarri overseeing a run of just two wins from nine matches before his sacking in early August.
Over the last two years, Bayern Munich and Liverpool have demonstrated that the game has moved towards high-energy, versatile, athletic midfielders, and McKennie provides that to a Juventus team that previously lacked such a player.
And, while that energy and work-rate are among his best attributes, his most impressive characteristics may be his mentality and leadership.
Never one to back down from a challenge, McKennie has already emerged as one of the leaders of a new-look USMNT in the run-up to 2022 World Cup qualification. That mentality also extends off the field, where McKennie has become one of the most prominent voices in combatting racism back at home and in Europe.
But, even for the most talented and determined of players, a move to a team as good as Juventus is a calculated risk, one that may not pay off.
It will be difficult to break into this team every week and, once he does, this is a club that is always looking to upgrade and improve by any means necessary.
Juventus will remain in “win-now” mode, but there is reason to believe that they will have a different way of going about it over the next few years.
The hiring of Pirlo over a more experienced manager is the first indication, with the decision to bring in the club legend no doubt backed by the idea that they are willing to be a little bit more patient as the former Italy playmaker evolves as a coach.
That patience will have to extend to McKennie as well. He has the mentality to make the leap, but playing at a club like Juventus is much different than anything else he has ever experienced.
As the club builds towards the 2020-21 season, there is little doubt that plenty of black-and-white striped McKennie jerseys will be sold across America. Like Pulisic before him, McKennie’s signing will move the needle, drawing in American fans like never before.
But this move is about more than that, as Juventus clearly believe they have a player that can help them reach new heights. If McKennie plays his part, you can expect to see those very same black-and-white striped McKennie jerseys to become a regular sight in Turin too.
This content was originally published here.