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From Wake Forest reserve to marking Piatti, Mark McKenzie has made strides in development

The Union rookie helped shut down one of the league’s best on Saturday

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

After spending most of the fall season at Wake Forest on the bench, Mark McKenzie wasn’t expected to play a big role on the first team for the Philadelphia Union this season.

But already he’s started more games (two) in the first third of the season for the Union than he did this far into his one season of college soccer.

His latest was a strong performance against one of the league’s most dangerous players in Ignacio Piatti.

“Obviously Keegan Rosenberry helped a great deal as well but Mark got isolated with Piatti four or five times and held up, he did a great job,” head coach Jim Curtin said during his weekly press conference on Wednesday. “He’s really risen to the occasion and really played well.”

Though only 19 years old, McKenzie’s maturity and calm under pressure has been evident in the minutes he’s earned on the field, but he’s also impressed staff outside of games. Curtin said earlier this season he feels like he’s talking to a 35-year-old when he and McKenzie converse at training.

“When you’re playing against a world class player like Piatti you have to watch film, you study him,” McKenzie said after the game in Montreal. “I just focused on staying in front of him, keeping my feet moving, sticking with him when he didn’t have the ball so that way it would eliminate any kind of ball he could play over the top or through us.”

With Real Salt Lake coming to town, Curtin said he has a decision to make whether to keep McKenzie in the lineup or go back to second-year center back Jack Elliott, who was a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award last year. Though an injury to Elliott initially gave McKenzie his chance to make his debut and first start at FC Dallas, McKenzie’s selection on Saturday came down to match-ups and getting some fresh legs on the field in an eight-day stretch with three games.

It was an injury to senior starter Kevin Politz in the fall that finally gave McKenzie a chance to make his first start for Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament in November. Politz signed a homegrown deal with New York Red Bulls but has only made one appearance in USL this season. McKenzie, meanwhile, is pairing on the Union back line with fellow teenage homegrown Auston Trusty, who waited two seasons to make his MLS debut after skipping out on a scholarship at North Carolina.

“Every kid’s development happens at a different time and for a different reason under a different set of circumstances,” Curtin said Wednesday. “(McKenzie’s) a kid who went to Wake Forest, because of maybe some quality that was playing in front of him at his position didn’t get a lot of minutes there. Yet he can step into an MLS game against Ignacio Piatti, who makes four and a half million dollars, and can — I won’t say shut him down — stop him.”

Prior to college, the Philadelphia Union Academy grad from Bear, Delaware had options to stay with the club but spurned a USL deal along with reported offers from German, Dutch and Scandinavian clubs.

He signed a first team contract in January and in four months has gone from a third string player expected to earn most of his minutes back with Bethlehem Steel FC to battling for the starting spot with Elliott.

“He’s stepped up and done a good job; he is not the finished product though,” Curtin said. “It’s a good lesson that you never know when these kids are going to pop, you never know when it’s going to click. Some peak at 12 and that’s it, some peak at 16, some it takes till they’re 25, 26 years old where something hits and a coach gives him an opportunity. For Mark, he’s done a good job stepping up with the minutes he has, but he has a long way to go.”

It’s certainly helped that McKenzie has stayed healthy while the other reserve center backs have not.

Josh Yaro, who has been limited to 45 minutes in one appearance for Steel, is still in concussion protocol, Curtin said. Richie Marquez, who had a sports hernia operation earlier this season, is expected to be back in full training next week.