One of the U.S. men’s national team’s most important players and biggest personalities, Weston McKennie, will be forced to miss the USA’s third World Cup qualifier in Honduras after he was sent home early following a violation of the team’s COVID-19 protocols, resulting in a suspension for the match against Canada.
The 23-year-old midfielder plays for one of the top teams in Italy and had emerged as a leader on the new-look USMNT, which included wearing the captain’s armband on occasion. With 25 appearances and seven goals from his central midfield position, McKennie was counted on to be a steady presence and difference-maker with his lung-busting runs out of midfield.
After a slow start to its 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, the last thing the U.S. men’s national team needed was to lose one of its star players. The team opened a series of 14 qualifying matches with two draws: 0-0 draw in El Salvador and 1-1 tie at home against Canada. The Americans face another tough test in their trip to Honduras, where they have failed to win in their last two qualifying visits.
The COVID-19 protocol breach by McKennie came on the heels of positive tests involving two teammates. Christian Pulisic tested positive while in England with his club team Chelsea, and was forced into a lengthy layoff, including missing the USA’s match against El Salvador. A more recent positive COVID-19 test ruled out goalkeeper Zack Steffen from the qualifiers against Canada and Honduras.
Why was McKennie suspended & dismissed?
So what did McKennie do to violate the team’s COVID-19 protocol? Two days after the Canada match, a report surfaced from TUDN’s Daniel Nohra that McKennie received a person at the hotel who was not part of the team.
That was later corroborated by a report from ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, who also added that McKennie spent a different night outside the USMNT bubble.
Sources: Weston McKennie was sent home for multiple violations of the #usmnt #COVID19 protocol, including bringing in an unauthorized person inside the team’s bubble. Also spent night outside the bubble. (TUDN first on the unauthorized person violation). https://t.co/1spuHRjqjt
— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) September 7, 2021
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter declined to share details in the news conference following the Canada match. When confronted with the reports in his subsequent availability, Berhalter refused to speak to their veracity:
“This is along the lines of information that’s not need-to-know,” Berhalter said the day before the Honduras match. “This is a team environment. Any conversations will remain between the team and I, and the team and the staff, and the team and Weston and that’s how we’ll leave it. He violated team policy and that’s as far as I’ll go with that.
“This is a team matter. This is stuff that happens within the team that’s not appropriate to share with the outside world, and I’ll leave it at that. What we do is such a close working environment and we’re so close together that when violated it goes to a point where too much becomes open and that’s not what we’re about. We’re about a team and about commitment together.”
What has McKennie said?
McKennie apologized via social media shortly after his absence from the Canada match became public:
There were differing accounts as to whether he spoke to his teammates following his suspension.
“We didn’t, obviously, speak to him,” Pulisic told media when asked whether the team had a chance to speak to McKennie. “We were just, obviously, told what happened by the coach and everything. And we were pretty much just forced to look past it, which we have.”
But Berhalter and goalkeeper Matt Turner said that McKennie apologized to the group before his departure.
“People make mistakes,” Berhalter said. “Weston apologized to the group and apologized to me. And things happen.”
Cuenta Matt Turner que Weston McKennie tuvo la oportunidad de despedirse de sus compañeros.
— Daniel Nohra (@cantogoles) September 7, 2021
What have his teammates and coach said?
After the 1-1 draw against Canada, Pulisic admitted that “obviously, we missed him today.” Teammate Tyler Adams elaborated:
“Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation because he’s such an important player and important character to this team. And off the field, how he brings this team together,” Adams said. “It’s obviously very disappointing.”
Berhalter explained that McKennie’s suspension and subsequent dismissal were made with the team in mind:
“When you talk about team policies and team rules and what we’re trying to accomplish as a team, the team absolutely comes first,” Berhalter said. “We made this decision not only for the short term, but for the long term health of the program. And it’s not an easy decision. Trust me. … We did it for what we think is the good of the group and the good of the team.”
“The most important message that we’re trying to get through is that we’re here in camp for seven days and the intensity is incredible. It’s three finals in seven days. We need everyone’s single-minded focus on what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Will McKennie be back?
Berhalter was asked the point-blank question about whether McKennie’s future with the program was compromised by his transgression, but Berhalter was clear that “it doesn’t rule him out for the future.”
“Of course (McKennie has a future in the program),” Berhalter said. “Very rarely would there be a situation where a player would never be allowed back into national team camp. … Me and Weston had long conversations. He’s a guy that I care for deeply. He’s a big part of the team. And I’m sure that when he’s performing well, he’ll be back in the team.”
USMNT legend Landon Donovan chimed in on the situation after he learned the details of the incident, which he did not share publicly. Based on that information, he feels that McKennie has to win back the trust of his teammates.
“I am just really disappointed with him. It doesn’t mean you write him off and he’s a horrible human being. He needs to learn from this,” Donovan said on the Futbol with Grant Wahl podcast. “But this can never, ever, ever happen again. It is almost beyond repair and he has a lot of work to do with his teammates to make sure he never does something like that again … He needs to make amends. He really does.”
How does the USA replace McKennie?
Midfield is arguably the weakest sector of the field when it comes to the depth and quality of the U.S. national team’s midfield pool. Tyler Adams, who plays for RB Leipzig, is a fixture in the deep-lying position. McKennie has always been projected to occupy the spot to the right of Adams in the three-man midfield starting set-up.
Sebastian Lletget and Kellyn Acosta teamed up with Adams against Canada and both contributed to meaningful attacks, with Acosta making a key pass on the USA’s lone goal. Cristian Roldan is another candidate to get minutes in central midfield, as is Valencia’s talented teenager Yunus Musah, who’s still on his way back from injury.
What’s next for McKennie?
McKennie’s club side, Juventus, will surely take stock of the player’s suspension and dismissal with the USMNT. The Italian team also had to discipline McKennie in April 2021 after he hosted a party involving other Juventus players in the lead-up to the Turin derby. That get-together defied a local curfew established as part of COVID restrictions, and police were called to McKennie’s house. The American was suspended by the club.
During that same season, his coach talked about how the club worked with McKennie to help him be “more professional” after his acquisition in 2020, specifically as it related to his diet.
There were reports that Juventus was looking to offload McKennie during the recent summer transfer window, but Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri is said to have stepped in to make sure he remained: “He has goals in his legs. He needs to be more disciplined and improve,” Allegri said.
Juventus returns to action in a big Italian league match at Napoli on Saturday, but it’s unclear whether McKennie will be part of the squad. After serving a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation in the first match of the new Serie A season, McKennie played 45 minutes for the club in an embarrassing 1-0 home loss to newly promoted Empoli on Aug. 28.