Weston McKennie didn't watch the final minutes of the United States men's national team's loss to Trinidad and Tobago in the CONCACAF Hexagonal stage, a result that kept the Americans out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986—12 years before the 19-year-old was born.
He saw the two T&T goals, the first courtesy of a botched clearance by American central defender Omar Gonzalez that went into his own net and the second a long-distance laser from Soca Warriors right back Alvin Jones. And McKennie watched a tally early in the second half from his friend Christian Pulisic, which gave the red, white and blue a chance.
But McKennie shut off the game in the 85th minute. For one, he's not the type to sit around for entire games, saying he's never seen a World Cup final or Super Bowl all the way through. He'd rather be moving, be playing, be competing. For another, it was late—going on 3 a.m. in Germany—and he had training in the morning with Schalke, the Bundesliga team where he's become a starter and an emerging star since signing in August, 2016. But mostly, McKennie shut off the game because he was mad.
"It was a pissed turnoff," he said a week later, the pain of the defeat still fresh in his mind. In that regard, he wasn't unlike many of American soccer fans, disgusted that the U.S. could come up so short in a match where the consequences were so large.
But unlike the vast majority of people watching the game, McKennie had a stake in the match that went beyond fandom. There's a good chance that despite only playing two matches for the under-20 team and never appearing for the senior side, he would have made Bruce Arena's World Cup roster next summer and possibly started as a defensive center midfielder.
McKennie went to sleep, and when he woke up, the U.S. was officially out of the 2018 tournament, the biggest failing in the history of the program.
"It was heartbreaking," he said. "It was one of those things that directly affects you, you know? I didn't play the U-17 World Cup. I didn't play the U-20 World Cup. This was something that I was looking forward to, but I guess it wasn't in the cards for the U.S."
Russia isn't in the cards for McKennie, either. But that doesn't mean he'll stop going places quickly.
McKennie has a path into potential soccer stardom that's both familiar and unique for an American kid. He was born in Little Elm, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, but spent the ages between six and nine in Kaiserslautern, Germany, where his father served on a U.S. military base.
He picked up soccer there, joining FC Phonix Otterbach in 2004. His family returned to the States, and McKennie entered the FC Dallas Academy in 2009. The Toyota Soccer Center, a sprawling 145-acre complex that features 17 professional-grade soccer fields, boasts one of the best facilities in the country, responsible for producing national-team talent including Kellyn Acosta and Jesse Gonzalez.
McKennie was a star at the academy and played for the U.S. national team at every youth level. While FC Dallas and MLS were desperate to keep the homegrown star, he decided to move abroad, chasing money and opportunity.
Last August, he signed with Schalke, a club whose youth academy, Knappenschmiede, developed Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Benedikt Howedes and many other elite players.
McKennie started for the under-19s, teaming with American teenagers Haji Wright and Nick Taitague to lead the squad to the A-Junioren Bundesliga semifinals, where they lost to Bayern Munich's youth team on penalties.
The young Texan thrived, dominating the field as a holding midfielder and captaining the group five times, chipping in four goals and three assists. Better yet, he found his role.
"I don't bring so much skill to the team," McKennie admits when we talk. He can bring out a trick or two if needed, but his true ability lies in his work ethic and ball winning. In the U.S., he had to be The Man. In Germany, he's one of many skilled young men.
"No disrespect to FC Dallas, but I was the main guy on my team at the academy, so I had to do a little bit of extra work," he says. "When I came here, it was more focused on making sure I did my job, and did my job well. I had other world-class players around me who are able to do their job. Creating is this guy's job. Taking players on is this guy's job. Winning balls, going into tackles and working hard is my job. I realized that on my own and then people mentioned it to me: 'You're a hard worker. You win some balls.'"
Among those paying attention were Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel, who promoted McKennie to the first team following the 2016-2017 season and extended his contract last month.
"Weston has shown in the past few months that he is more than capable of contributing significantly to the future of Schalke," he said at the time, per the club's website.
By that time, the young star had already made his first Bundesliga start against Bayern, standing opposite a lineup featuring James Rodriguez, Thomas Muller, Kingsley Coman, and Robert Lewandowski.
His Miners lost—it was 2-0 when McKennie came out in the 57th minute for tactical reasons, and the final line read 3-0—but he's maintained his place in head coach Domenico Tedesco's lineup. Not bad for a 19-year-old American.
Wherever he goes in the soccer world, McKennie feels comfortable, knowing he's good enough to belong, that he can do the dirty work and succeed. He got used to the Bundesliga pace of play during preseason.
"Whenever you get the ball, it feels like people are running at you," he says of the difference between Germany and the U.S.—but the sport is the same everywhere in the world. And a locker room is a locker room is a looker room.
"I'm pretty sure the way people joke around is similar in both countries," he says. "The music in the locker room is similar, surprisingly." At Schalke, captain Ralf Fahrmann usually picks the jams. Sometimes rap, sometimes techno, sometimes Spanish music.
Off the field, McKennie's a long way from home, and he misses his friends and family like anyone would. While he pays attention to what's happening politically and culturally in the U.S. through social media and conversations with Taitague and Pulisic ("It's my country. I kind of have to."), he tries to avoid it, too.
He can't change anything, and he needs to worry about his own life. He looks forward to his next trip home because he longs for the food, although he worries he'll be tempted by the junk food he avoids under the new, stricter diet he's adopted as a professional athlete.
And, besides, it could be some time before he returns to Texas. McKennie is determined to make a life in Germany. He's waiting for his apartment to be ready, looking forward to the privacy that comes with living alone for the first time in his life.
McKennie's been staying at Taitague's apartment in the center of the city, but he's over the commotion. "It's kind of stressful sometimes," the self-proclaimed "hopeless romantic"—whose favorite movie is the sappy Rachel McAdams-Ryan Gosling vehicle The Notebook—says.
"You'll be walking and someone sees you and wants a photo. Once one person takes a photo, other people will start recognizing." His spot, where he's moving in a week or two, is on a quiet road. He won't be bothered there, driving the Mercedes C43 AMG he bought three months ago in peace.
Life is coming at McKennie pretty fast, and he's adapting to the changes with ease. But he couldn't control his World Cup fate. That was determined by a group of his fellow citizens, thousands of miles and five timezones away.
As time ticked away at Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, McKennie shut off the game, hoping against hope that something might change. "I was thinking in my head that maybe I'd wake up in the morning and see that they'd tied," he says. "I dunno."
It didn't happen. The next day, he checked to confirm what he already feared to be true: the U.S. wouldn't be going to Russia, and McKennie wouldn’t get a chance to show that he belonged on the world's biggest stage. The road ended before it had even begun.
He walked into Taitague's room, stunned, sad and disgusted.
"We didn’t qualify," he said.
"I know," his teammate and countryman replied. "I know, man."
The two American teens commiserated for a few brief moments. Then they got up, walked out the door and proceeded to training. The future might have changed overnight, but it was still coming.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.