Mark McKenzie interview: Make ‘em clap to this – US defender riding with the new rhythm nation

United States defender Mark McKenzie celebrates Genk’s Belgian Cup final win in 2021 with first-team technical coach Michel Ribeiro. Photo: Michel Ribeiro

A new era is by now well in motion for the U.S. Men’s National Team, led by a cast not afraid to go off script. Among those on the come-up is Mark McKenzie, the KRC Genk defender committed to his craft, while out to make a conscious and creative imprint much further afield.

American players’ presence in Europe is decades past being a new development, though the sheer volume, together with the calibre of various clubs concerned, points to an all-time high for the international regard for US talent. Nineteen months into his Belgian adventure, Mark McKenzie’s stint at four-time champions KRC Genk has been packed with changes to roll with for the 23-year-old centre-back.

Working under his third head coach at the club, moving overseas for the first time has tested much more than his defensive IQ, but a Genk squad spanning four continents has got to know plenty about the former Philadelphia Union man’s bubbling character.

“I’d probably say I’m the DJ,” he laughs. “I’m the American guy in the locker room, so I bring this mix of all kinds of sounds.”

“I enjoy being able to unite people, since I was a kid, but with music, everybody can get on, everybody can get up and dance and just feel the vibe. That was something I really wanted to bring to the locker room.

“We have an international locker room, so you can really put on music from all corners of the earth and you can hit somebody who’ll know the song. The young Belgian guys from the academy, they’ll chime in some suggestions on how to get in the Belgian music.

“My boy Joe (Joseph Paintsil), he gets some Ghanaian music in there, Paul (Onuachu), he’ll throw in a Nigerian track. There’s the Spanish-speaking guys from Colombia, Ecuador, and now we have an Argentine (Nicolás Castro) as well.”

His United States team are also soon to play to a global audience, with a World Cup that is now less than three months away. Their oft-cited absence in 2018 means that the appearance in Qatar will be almost eight-and-a-half years since their round-of-16 game with Belgium in Brazil.

Formidable figures and varying personalities in the American soccer sphere have made way since then, and fresh exuberance will be one guarantee from the Class of ’22. The days of an up-and-coming Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson freestyling on the team bus may be long since consigned to the rear-view mirror, but improvisational expression is alive and well with today’s talent pool, as Mark confirms.

“We definitely have some freestyle battles, whether it be sitting inside the locker room before training, on the bus, in the hotel, at the meal-room tables. Guys will kind of go off on a tangent – ‘Alright, well…you gotta rhyme something with ‘table’!’

“It’s really stuff like that, but it’s fun and it adds that other element, where you can bond in a different way, other than on the pitch. It takes guys out of their comfort zone a bit, and sees who can step up when they get called on!”

A thread of deeper understanding also exists, with numerous connections that can be traced back to youth national teams and academy soccer. A debutant with the senior team in February 2020, Mark was in the Under-20 side that reached the quarter-final of the World Cup in Poland back in 2019.

It was a squad also containing the likes of Chris Richards, Timothy Weah and Sergiño Dest, while new Leeds United attacking standout Brenden Aaronson made his way up with Mark at Philadelphia Union.

“Now we’ve had the chance for a couple of years to be playing together (as a senior national team), I think that’s really been a blessing. We’ve developed great relationships off the field and I think that’s what helps on the field.

“We can definitely have heated discussions a lot, in the locker room at half-time, figuring out adjustments and demanding more from each other; I think you’ve got to get under each other’s skin a little bit in order to get the most out and be successful. You may not need to yell at a guy but you just pull them to the side.

“For example, when I had the mistake in the (2021 Concacaf) Nations League final, I had the entire team essentially come and say, ‘Yo, pick your head up, come on,’ the team were all together, ‘It’s gonna happen, so let’s go, let’s keep it moving.’ I think in those moments, when you have those relationships with guys and know that they truly have your back, I think that is what really makes this crop of players, this generation of the national team, special.”

Collective input also comes sizzling into play pre-game. The list of willing team DJs includes Timothy Weah, who, despite bringing genuine music-making experience to the table, has not yet added his own material into the locker-room mix.

“We’ve got Tim Weah, Weston McKennie, Kellyn Acosta, myself,” Mark explains. “I’d probably say more so Kellyn.”

“Wes is a character, always full of good vibes, he usually takes over once we get to the music sector of the camp. I think we have another nice mix with that, because Tim also brings some French music, Weston throwing on some Italian music.

“That’s also interesting, trying to bring a bunch of American guys together and figure out who’s going to take over the music.”

The aforementioned Concacaf Nations League may be one of the international game’s newer honours, and one outside of the ‘major’ category at that, but the US success in June last year was undeniably one to remember. Sealed with a 3-2 extra-time win over rivals Mexico in Denver, there was the sense of having come through a meaningful, multi-layered test to be the ones lifting the trophy at its conclusion.

It may be cited in the future as a significant stepping stone for this team, and it was a night worthy of its own backing track, as Mark recalls.

“The music was non-stop from the time we won the final, in the locker room, to the time we got on the bus to head to the airport, because we had another match after that final. All the way through the flight, and by the time we landed, got on the bus again and got to the hotel, music was still going.

“‘Good Vibrations’ by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch (featuring Loleatta Holloway), we played that. It was on the plane and we had a walkway, so it was almost like a fashion show!

“Everyone was dressed the same, but just the vibes and everything, guys kind of strutting their stuff, the camera flashlights on, everybody jumping into it and having fun with it.”

On top of the lighter times, music has been a recognisable supporting act in Mark’s life, and as he found all the more after moving to Europe, an electric blanket in the colder moments.

“I think when I first got here to Genk, I had a difficult time. I’m a man of faith as well, so I’d put on gospel music, uplifting music to kind of get me through, because when I first arrived, things were still closed (due to COVID), it was winter, it was snowing, dreary outside, getting dark at 5 o’clock in the evening.

“I was away from my family for the first, legitimate, long period of time in my life and I didn’t really know how to deal with everything; it kind of all came down on me at once. To get through that, it was important to fill my space with music that was uplifting.

“I think that period was one where I really tapped into a lot of music and found myself exploring different genres and artists, and being able to really connect on different levels with different parts of the world. Listening to old tracks, Michael Jackson tracks, and just dancing on FaceTime with my family.

“My sister, she’s a dancer, so dancing with her on FaceTime, having dance battles and stuff like that to music we love, those are the moments where music will really help you a lot.”

Both The Bronx and Bear, Delaware represent home, with the family residing in the former until Mark was five years old, while they still have relatives in New York today. The Jamaican heritage on his father’s side is another cherished strand to his identity, which he frequently savours the connection to via food, and of course, music.

“My dad’s Jamaican, so reggae is in my blood. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, r&b, those are my two go-to, but football being the way it is, it’s an international game, so I’ve been introduced to reggaeton, Afrobeats as well.

“It’s kind of based on my mood but I’d probably say Burna Boy, Drake, Wizkid, those are my top three right now. Travis Scott as well.”

Born in 1999 he may have been, but his collection just about began in a pre-download-dominated world!

“This was back when I was a kid, I was obsessed with Michael Jackson; I used to want to dance like him, perform like him, sing like him. I think my mom took me to a music store, it was called FYE, For Your Ears, it was right after school, she took me to get I think it was the ‘Thriller’ album; I bought that on CD and I used to play that non-stop.

“I loved his music, so I went through all his albums at one point.”

A performer’s mentality has been necessary in the years since, and not only for dealing with opposing forwards while thousands watch on. He would have just the one season of collegiate soccer at Wake Forest, before signing a Homegrown Player contract with Philadelphia Union in January 2018, but that period had helped to get him primed and ready for one of the regular occurrences of a pro career today.

“I had to sing in college, the national team I also had to sing, and once or twice in Philly. I forget the song when I was at Wake Forest, but I remember when I was with Philly in my first pre-season, I sung ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ by Alicia Keys.

“Forgot the lyrics maybe five seconds in, then I finally remembered them again; the guys were almost about to boo me off the chair but I was able to recover a little bit. Then with the national team, I sung ‘Bonita’ (J Balvin), just to get everyone kind of into it; I can speak Spanish a little bit, so that was also cool.

“I sung ‘Let Me Love You’ by Mario for my Genk initiation.”

Extensive recording experience is already on his résumé, by way of his Orange Slices podcast, a collaboration with former USMNT defender Heath Pearce. The world, outside of his immediate circle, may not yet have been treated to Mark’s vocals in a musical sense, but here is where he can get a hypothetical head start.

In this completely-believable scenario, the execs have been on the line, deciding there is a highly-specific, somewhat soccer-centric gap in the market that Mark can help them conquer. But they are insisting it is a package deal, and he needs to bring at least one teammate from his career, to kick off with a cover song.

Looks like Motownphilly’s back…again!

“I think we’re gonna go with an r&b track. It’d probably be with Tim Weah, or Fafà Picault from when I played in Philly; my man Fafà can sing and Tim’s got vocals as well.

“Something like a Boyz II Men ‘End of the Road’-type song, I think that would be a nice combination of the three. It would definitely be fun to hop on a track with those guys.”

With MLS play-off experience from 2018 and 2019, the Philadelphia Union academy graduate enjoyed a standout year in 2020. Despite the beginning of the pandemic making for a significantly-disrupted year for the league, the Union secured its first major trophy, topping the Eastern Conference and overall standings (on points per game) to lift the Supporters’ Shield.

At 21, Mark was named in the MLS Best XI, alongside teammates Brenden Aaronson and Andre Blake, with the trio doing likewise for the MLS is Back Tournament, as the Union reached the semi-final. There were various bonding factors present across his time with the club, including what came through the speakers (to an extent…).

“During training, it was always a battle, because we had Sonos (audio control) in the locker room; once guys had access to it, you never really knew who was jumping on the music. You could be playing a song, and next thing you know, that song is cut off and somebody else is playing their song!

“That was always the battle daily but we still had a good time with that; good energy flowing before training, after training, in the gym. Then before games, usually the equipment manager would throw on some throwback tracks, tracks that were Philly artists or guys that were really new, and the songs almost became like rituals.

“Before each game, you played ‘Dreams and Nightmares’ and that song kind of got you pumped; the connection with Meek Mill, Philly, the team, and the grind and the grit, rolling up the sleeves. ‘Yeah, it’s not a city everybody loves but we’re gonna go out there and leave it all on the field.’

“That aspect of it and that song really connected.”

Completing his move to Genk in January last year, on a deal running until summer 2025, Mark was a Belgian Cup winner in April 2021, coming on in a 2-1 win over Standard Liège. The King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels was without spectators that day, and with football fans having returned during the time since, so too has the summer music festival.

Belgium recently welcomed back the internationally-renowned Tomorrowland festival for the first time since 2019, though Mark was not among the estimated 600,000 attendees: “EDM, that’s not my speed!”

The Philadelphia-hosted Made in America Festival, during his teenage years, is one he fondly remembers. In this next question, though, he has struck gold, with a money-can’t-buy priority pass that even hops the turnstiles of time.

If he could see any act, of any era, perform live…

“I’d want to see, of course, Michael Jackson. I’d want to go see Bruno Mars; I feel like his vibe is something that I could really get with.

“I’d say Chris Brown and Usher. I had a huge phase in my life where it was all Usher, and I was trying to, again, dance like him, perform like him.

“I’d be in my room dancing in the mirror, singing his songs, thinking I’m him, putting on the glasses – my family could tell you all about that!”

Sharp movement and sure-footedness remain at the forefront for him today, as he describes when considering how his time at Genk so far has helped refine his game.

“I think the biggest part was getting here and getting my feet wet, in a way where now, when I step on the pitch, the game is slow to me. Before I get the ball, knowing what I need to do, so by the time I get the ball, whoever’s pressing me really has no chance, because I already know which passing line is open or closed, what my teammate is going to do, because we’ve already developed that chemistry.

“Also, being stronger in my duels on the ground and in the air. Lastly, on the ball, being able to work on being both-footed.

“That was another big thing, my passing range with my left foot. My dominant foot’s my right foot, so it’s been important being able to unlock teams, passing through the lines but with either foot.”

The club he represents is one with recent history of being Belgian champions, with the 2019 success their fourth since 1999. He tells how he appreciates the fervour that can be felt for KRC in the local area and how it runs through families.

In the UEFA Champions League group phase as recently as 2019/20, Racing missed out on European qualification altogether last season, though they currently top the table after four wins from their opening five games (Mark starting the last two). While Colombia defender Jhon Lucumí departed for Bologna last week, an exciting boost arrived with the return of Mbwana Samatta (on loan from Fenerbahçe), the Tanzania star whose scoring form in his previous Genk stint earned a move to Aston Villa.

Having joined during John van den Brom’s tenure, Mark has since played under Bernd Storck, and current manager Wouter Vrancken, who took over in late-May. In what is a cosmopolitan environment, he estimates that English is spoken ‘60/70 per cent’ of the time.

He laughs at the reminder of one welcome adaptation from life in MLS.

“Yeah, no press in the locker room, so you can change without feeling like you’re being watched!”

He does, however, have every intention of catching the eye during the coming months, recognising the need for regular club action in order to push his case for World Cup selection. The national team, and indeed any club side he represents, will ultimately be rated on results, but he is among those in the sport today who understands that his position can reach far beyond that – when all was said and done, what did you contribute to your era?

Upon Mark’s transfer to Genk, Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin said ‘there is no player that is more deserving, that has worked harder’, but also highlighted the voice he was becoming in the team behind the scenes. Equality and opportunity are rooted in a couple of the ventures he is currently involved with, while he is also remembering to have fun.

“I’m working with (USMNT goalkeeper) Zack Steffen on VOYCENOW. I’m also an advisory member for an organisation called Black Star Soccer, which is trying to reach minority groups in a lot of the inner-cities, some major cities in the US, to broaden accessibility of the game that we love to kids that probably would never be introduced to do it.

“Aside from that, man, trying to get my fashion game up! I’m trying to tap into some new fields of interest; gaming and fashion, those are two areas I enjoy.”


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He describes his mantra as ‘being okay with giving up some things in the short-term to thank yourself in the long-term’. It touches upon the kind of virtues he was raised with, which also come to the fore as he discusses his adjustment to life as a professional player, with the scrutiny and spotlight it entails.

“I don’t think it’s caused me to change who I am, it’s just caused me to adjust my lifestyle, to think about how decisions can affect not only myself but my family and those around me. That’s something that’s been instilled in me since I was a kid, and from there, I’ve always walked with a maturity and walked with this humility, because I’m extremely thankful and blessed to do what I do, and I pray that I have a long and successful career, but I know that I can’t control everything in it.

“The most I can do is control myself, so whenever I step in an environment, I want to make sure that I leave people with the proper impression of who I am. Getting to know me as me, not as this fake Mark but as the humble guy I am, the kid who was born and raised in the Bronx, who went to Bear and grew up playing football.

“My dad worked two and three jobs at one point, my mom going through breast cancer, and having all these experiences, that’s me. That’s what’s helped me and moulded me into who I am today.”

As he continues to sculpt his defensive game, this regular closing question’s scenario gives him chance to show the kind of striker’s instinct that was on display when he was (wrongly) denied his first international goal for offside in the 2020 friendly with El Salvador! The scene is a small-sided game, with Mark to feature alongside four of his career teammates, as a sample selection of the many he has especially enjoyed playing alongside so far.

“Ilsinho, who I played with in Philly, he’s a great human being, fun guy, a great mentor. He’s one guy I would definitely have on my team.

“I would bring…let’s say Sergiño Dest, because I know Serg, that’s my guy. I’d bring, from my current team, Mike Trésor (Ndayishimiye); he’s a baller, we call him Magic Mike.

“Anthony Fontana, my Delaware guy, he’s one I gotta have in my team; we played futsal together and he’s easily one of the best one-v-one players I’ve had to go against or play with. That’s definitely a solid team right there, I’d take that team against a lot of people.”

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