Missing the World Cup is a letdown for USA but Weston McKennie is leading a new wave of young stars into the future

Youve heard of Christian Pulisic, but the hardcore fan knows who Weston McKennie is. For those who dont, the U.S. is sitting on a gem that could be the heart and soul of this team for years to come.

Missing the World Cup is a letdown for USA, but Weston McKennie is leading a new wave of young stars into the future

Weston is just a fighter, man, Pulisic told CBS Sports. Hes an annoying guy to play against because he is going to kick you. Hes a ball winner. Its a position we are kind of missing in the U.S.

At Schalke, he is a pure defensive midfielder. He doesnt get forward much because he doesnt need to. Hes the man to try and prevent his defenders from having to do too much.

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For me, with Schalke, I know my position very well, stay back, Im more of a defensive guy, he said.

The future for the national team is probably brighter than that it has been in the past, but only time will tell.

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The 19-year-old out of Texas is a superb midfield prospect and was set to play at the University of Virginia but opted for Europe and signed with German club Schalke.

I think I showed my abilities and what I can bring to the national team, McKennie said. The future is looking good.

I also know my game involves being robust, going in strong, going into tackles, McKennie said.

He said he prefers to be more box-to-box with the U.S. but will do whatever is asked of him.

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It wasnt so tough, but the toughest part would be the quickness, McKennie said.

You look at the guys and you say its young talent, but you look and it is young, young, young talent. Josh Sargent being 18, Tim Weah being 18. Youve never seen this, guys coming with the accolades that they have. Playing for PSG, Bremen, me for Schalke, Christian for Dortmund, he said.

The pain wont go away for a long time. For U.S. fans, thefailure to qualify for the 2018 World Cupwas both shocking but not all that surprising. Under Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena, the team lacked an identity, failed to play with conviction and showed that it didnt have enough chemistry to contend in what is arguably one of the most undemanding qualifying zones in the world. And with that, a page is turned. Theres now ageneral manager for the U.S. mens national teamin Earnie Stewart, there will likely be a new coach (assuming Dave Sarachan doesnt get the gig) and weve seen a huge influx of young players. Whether there will be a youth movement with a new coach remains to be seen, but well likely see a mixture of veterans and young guys building towards the future.

A rising star in Germany whose role with the United States is increasing, the future looks brighter than it has ever been. And he plans to be the rock in the middle to take the U.S. to places its never been in the modern era.

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And those tackles McKennie is known for, Pulisic said, are a lot to deal with as an opponent.

Missing the World Cup is a letdown for USA, but Weston McKennie is leading a new wave of young stars into the future

I like to take the ball and go forward with it, McKennie said.

He had the best of both worlds and one of the guys that believed in me, obviously besides my family, McKennie said.

Besides McKennie and Pulisic, there is a bunch of young talent coming down the pipeline. Theres Josh Sargent at Werder Bremen, Tim Weah at Paris Saint-Germain and many more. McKennie likes the direction the U.S. is heading under these players, while realizing that the national team wont be starting a bunch of 20-year-olds. He knows that they will need to earn their roles.

And since then, hes done nothing but perform. While Pulisic is at Borussia Dortmund and looking sharp, McKennie is doing the same just about 30 minutes west in Gelsenkirchen. In a role that receives less attention from most media members and certainly fans, he has surpassed expectations. In his first season for Schalke, McKennie had 25 appearances for a team that finished ahead of Dortmund and behind Bayern Munich, ending the season with an impressive second-place finish in the Bundesliga. McKennie said it all came as a surprise, but he was ready for the challenge and helped lead his team to Champions League qualification along with rising German sensation Leon Goretzka.

But the truth is, things will get better. Really, it has to. Its hard to fall lower than the U.S. did during the last qualifying cycle. AndSundays 6-1 win for England over fellow CONCACAF foe Panamawas another reminder on what the U.S. missed out on.

Only time will tell what his role will be with the U.S., but he has a big fan in his corner in Pulisic who thinks he can fill a void the U.S. is missing.

If I play the [box-to-box role] I want to be able to go forward also and know I can cover. We have the players to do that. I dont mind doing the dirty work for the team. McKennie said.

In the short time, weve seen them, the youngsters have looked the part. Pulisics ability in attack is key, but having heart, confidence and the willingness to do the dirty work in the middle is the key to any team, and that is what McKennie brings.

One of the reasons hes adjusted so quickly overseas and has been ready for the USMNT is the preparation and advice by somebody who knows all about it and has been in his shoes. Cory Gibbs, a former national team player, is McKennies agent. Gibbs played in Germany for St. Pauli, made 19 appearances for the USMNT and hes been a role model to the young star.

McKennie said he thought he was quick, that he had the vision, but that adjusting to the speed of the game in Germany was a challenge. But now after one breakout season, hes planning on improving his game with each match he plays in by listening to his coaches and putting in the work. And hes hoping that his improvement will only help the USMNT get back to the World Cup — which is a dream of his.

When it comes to the U.S. improving, it all starts in the middle, the engine. One of the biggest weak spots weve seen with the U.S. is in the middle of the field, especially defensively. Every team needs a proper defensive midfielder or one who can go box-to-box, delivering attack-thwarting tackles, but also the ability to make quick passes to go on the counter or even run at goal with speed and smarts. And the U.S. looks to finally have that in one of its top prospects.

But for the national team, where he has four caps, its been a different role. McKennie goes more box-to-box, something he enjoys. It was evident against Portugal in his first cap, when he scored in a 1-1 draw.

A talented defensive midfielder is what every team needs to be successful — a player who can be a rock in the middle. Having that defensive presence ahead of the back line is crucial for any team, allowing them to go on the counter by recovering the ball, stopping counters and making crucial tackles to keep clean sheets. And while playing youth soccer in the United States is different than top-flight Bundesliga play, McKennies confidence helped him adjust to the game in Germany and he has blossomed since.

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But its important to keep in mind his role could change. While he has been sharp for both club and country, a lot will depend on who becomes the national team coach. If it is someone who relies on having a pure defensive midfielder, perhaps McKennie would slide into that role. If not, he could continue as that box-to-box midfielder.

While Michael Bradley has been an important contributor for the national team and has played deep in the midfield, he isnt a defensive guy like McKennie. What the young Schalke star brings could be just what the doctor orders for the USMNT.

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