As we count down the days until the MLS season begins, we will be looking at 25 players from greater Philadelphia who have made an impact on the league 25 years after the first ball was kicked. Read the rest of the series at brotherlygame.com/philly-mls-25.
It’s still weird to write about Mark McKenzie in past tense in terms of the Philadelphia Union and MLS, but after the year he had in 2020 it’s not surprising the 22-year-old Bronx-born defender from Bear, Delaware is now plying his trade elsewhere.
Now in Belgium’s top league with KRC Genk, McKenzie was one of the stars of the Union’s Supporters’ Shield run and a big reason why they had the top defense in the league: conceding just 20 goals in 23 games for the season.
While he was beaten (robbed perhaps?) out by Walker Zimmerman for defensive player of the year, he did make the MLS Best XI and set an impressively high bar for future center backs who wear the crest.
“Mark will always be part of the Philadelphia Union that is for sure,” head coach Jim Curtin said after McKenzie’s departure was announced in January. “His improvement through the years, something that’s been remarkable through the highs and the lows of playing in games at Bethlehem Steel, kind of fine tuning his craft, coming to our first team, and thriving, becoming a best 11 player, lifting a trophy with this with this club, the first trophy for the Philadelphia Union. Mark is a Philadelphia Union legend.”
McKenzie finished his Union career with 48 appearances, 4,146 minutes, a couple goals and three assists but beyond the accolades and the way he put everything together last season is the impression he left along the way as a youngster with big dreams training with the Union Juniors, up through the academy.
Even as a 19-year-old rookie in 2018, Curtin would talk about his conversations with McKenzie like he was talking about a chat he had with a coach or another peer instead of a recent high school grad. A few days before Mark’s 20th birthday, MLS released a video of a Black History Month roundtable recorded in San Jose the previous fall where McKenzie shined as brightly sharing his experiences with racism and thoughts about inequality as he did on the pitch.
His comfortability with the spotlight and his courage addressing complex issues of racial injustice, the treatment of minority players from fans and the media and topics he feels strongly about like police brutality continued from there. In many of his biggest moments last season, McKenzie used his time in on-air interviews and over Zoom with media to first talk about injustices that were making headlines and to say the names of victims of police violence.
He’s also recently become a soccer podcaster, interviewing present and past members of the USMNT on the Orange Slices podcast with Heath Pierce. The show displays the lighter side of Mark’s personality along with his deep knowledge and appreciation for the game.
Talking about his growing profile as a member of the USMNT playing in Europe in an interview with reporters when his transfer was announced, McKenzie said using his platform to inspire the next generation is something front and center in his mind.
“It gives me the opportunity to inspire the next generation, gives me the opportunity to connect with kids, you know, who are looking up to me,” he said. “To the young black kid who feels like soccer is lame, now I may inspire him to chase his dreams and play the game, or to the little black girl who feels like she doesn’t have a voice who has been ridiculed and isolated, giving her the inspiration to make sure she’s speaking up.”
McKenzie’s development story is also inspiring to the boys at YSC Academy, where he graduated in 2017. He went to Wake Forest for a season and struggled to find consistent playing time, then dealt with numerous setbacks in his second season as a pro in 2019 — injuries and appendicitis — that limited him to only 7 first team appearances.
“I look back and I’m thankful and I honestly wouldn’t change a thing, you know, people ask me all the time would I go back and not go to Wake or what if I signed with Bethlehem Steel out of high school you know what does that look like,” McKenzie said in January. “But I think each experience that I’ve gone through has set me up for where I am now. It’s definitely been a journey so far but yeah I’m only (22) and I pray that I have a long and healthy career, a successful career at the highest levels of football.”
Wherever that path leads, he’s got the weight of Philly soccer and the tight knit community he grew up with in Delaware cheering him on and wishing him only the best.