The newest member of the Bianconeri is as Italian as fettuccine alfredo or macaroni and cheese.
Red, White, and B...Juve?
Since the suspension of play originating from the coronavirus pandemic, many facets of the professional football world have been drastically altered from the norm. And the mercato has been no exception. As the August evenings wean into September mornings the rumor mill swirls with well-known commodities Juventini are clamoring to get the black and white stripes on, but many did not expect the latest one to enter so distantly out of ‘left field’. Juventus’ most recent confirmed addition of the 2020 summer* transfer market crashed into the Twittersphere like a Mack truck filled with firecrackers through a Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on the Fourth of July. News that was equally astonishing as it was brimming with potential for as much exhilaration as aforementioned analogy.
*Technically, though we are edging closer to fall territory thanks to the global plight that is COVID-19.
Not understanding all of these oddly specific and stereotypical references? Odds are you reside in a region outside of the northwestern hemisphere.
The latest in the line of non-European imports (surprisingly not Brazilian) arrives in the form of United States Men's National Team and Schalke 04 (Germany) midfielder Weston McKennie. The freshly aged 22-year-old celebrated a birthday while undergoing medical examinations at the J Medical facility following his arrival in Turin late Thursday night and (as perhaps the perfect birthday gift) was officially announced as a signed Juventus player the following Saturday evening.
Photo by Juventus.com
Some of the more experienced transfer market gurus might have been asking the same question I asked myself as I remained glued to the Twitter application on my phone, ignoring any pertinent duties my paying job entrusted to me…. who is this guy?
An American Pioneer in the Italian Frontier.
McKennie was born in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex city suburb of Little Elm, Texas in a state many would call the capital of American Football. No, not the kind at which Juventus excels. The pigskin-centered, helmet-wearing, arm-tackling, CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) inducing kind Americans know and love. The USA has had success at the highest levels in many team and Olympic sports, but (United States Women’s National Team notwithstanding) international and club football is not one of them.
Born and raised a citizen of the western continent, the American would not remain in one place for long. McKennie and his family left the United States at the age of five when his father, a member of the United States military, was relocated to Germany for a permanent change of station. A youth in a foreign country, McKennie would be introduced to a new spherical football aberrant from the “handegg” he knew of the same name. From there Weston’s love and skills with football blossomed playing for FC Phönix Otterbach in the German youth system. After returning to the United States, McKennie played as a member of the youth system for MLS team FC Dallas from 2009 to 2016. In 2016 McKennie turned down both a scholarship offer (after initially signing a National Letter of Intent) from the University of Virginia and a Homegrown Player contract with MLS team FC Dallas to return to Germany and play for German Bundesliga team Schalke 04.
Football in America has been neglected over the years in favor of the local moneymakers with the National (American) Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and Major League Baseball (MLB) thriving from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Even the National Hockey League (NHL) has seen more success with American audiences, while Major League Soccer (MLS) is overlooked and underwhelming. And how could you blame McKennie? For even Americans can see the retirement home the MLS has become. The New York Red Bulls or the LA GAlaxy are places where footballers go for the epilogue to their career, not even the finale.
The American thrived in the German league and during his time playing for the first team made 75 appearances while scoring 4 goals. Throughout the same period, McKennie remained a member of the US National Team program and since joining the first team in 2017 has made 17 appearances and scored 6 goals for the Americans in international play. McKennie is well known for his high energy and fearless style of play. Constantly attacking the ball and averaging running over six miles in a match by himself. The effort and energy that the American can bring to the midfield are attributes this Juventus group has sorely missed over the last season.
The Juventus-McKennie signing presents a momentous opportunity for American football, or as the locals call it: soccer. Since its inception, Serie A has only had four American players call the league home: Armando Frigo was the first to play in Serie A for Fiorentina from 1939-1942, Alexi Lalas played for Padova from 1994-1996, current USMNT captain Michael Bradley played for Chievo and Roma from 2011-2014, and Joshua Perez last played for Fiorentina in 2016-2017. While a handful of other American football players have carved out their niche in Premier League, Bundesliga, and other European leagues. Weston James Earl McKennie will become the fifth American to join the league and will be the first American player to ever don the black and white stripes of The Old Lady.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
The US National has the opportunity to join American rising star Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), greats Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, and Clint Dempsey as a luminary in European football. What better place to do it than the Grandmother of them all? Juventus, the stage is set. The midfielder arrives at a time when his position group is in dire straits and eagerly awaits the youthful exuberance of players with the drive of McKennie and Brazilian signee Arthur Melo.
Success on the pitch for Juventus not only can fatten McKennie’s bank account and The Old Lady’s stat sheet, but can play a bigger part in making Juventus football the next biggest Italian import to the Americas since extra virgin olive oil.
Juventus: An International Brand.
Juventus has positioned itself as a brand on the international stage to appeal to a wider range of audiences following the rebrand from the old Juventus logo to the new ‘J’ logo brought in July 2017. The addition of the star of all stars, Cristiano Ronaldo, in the summer of 2018 boasting over 87 million followers on Twitter and a jaw dropping 237 million followers on Instagram the athlete has a reach greater than any other modern athlete to contribute to The Old Lady’s global appeal. And the ‘abhorrent’ 2019/20 home kit (That I, myself, did not completely hate. But what do I know? I am an uncultured American.) was nontraditional to appeal to outside audiences where the black and white stripes are associated with game officials.
Calculated business moves are Agnelli’s calling card, as was the ‘Juventus Night’ held by the Brooklyn Nets during the 2018-19 season NBA season. The Brooklynettes cheerleaders wore Juventus shirts, a match watch party was held for the rivalry match with Inter, and zebra mascot Jay even made an appearance. In an interview with Forbes’ Robert Kidd, Juventus Chief Revenue Officer Giorgio Ricc spoke about that night and stated that, “The U.S. and China are the key markets for our international growth. The domestic market in Italy has reached its maturity, and the margin of growth is quite limited. Juventus has had a rock-solid position over many, many years, with a fan market share of around 28% or 30%. The interest of Juventus in the U.S. is driven by some key factors. One is the millennial generation is the biggest in U.S. history—around 92 million people. Professional soccer is ranked as the second-most-popular sport among people aged 12-17. Our research has given us 27 million potential Juventus fans (in the U.S.). Those are people who declare they are interested or very interested in the club.”
The United States of America is a modern day fertile crescent of growth for Juventus as an international brand to germinate and thrive. An equally unfortuitous and fortuitous combination of global pandemic, social unrest, cancellation of local professional and collegiate sports in the United States, as well as greater access to European sports through streaming sources like ESPN+, advertising with Netflix specials like First Team: Juventus, and the average American citizen’s long established addiction to sporting events and sports gambling have created the perfect storm for Juventus football to fill the void. Bringing in a national team player from the United States of America can only increase interest from viewers in the western world. As was the case when many Italian immigrants traveled to America in the late 1800s and established Little Italy in the cultural melting pot of New York City, success by an American athlete for the top Italian football club in Serie A can do the same for establishing the United States as the future site for Little Torino.
Fino Alla Fine: The Bottomline.
The signing of Weston McKennie for Juventus is one of low risk, high reward. The press release sent out by Juventus states the club and Schalke 04 have reached an agreement for the loan of Weston McKennie for 4.5 million euros with an obligation to purchase only if the player achieves certain given sportive objectives by the end of the 2020/2021 season, and there is an agreed purchase price of 18.5 million euros (with possibility of a maximum 7 million euro increase depending on the achievement of sportive objectives).
Compared to many investments made over the years by the Juventus front office (ie. Rabiot, Ramsey, Khedira), McKennie is a safe bet. If he works out, Juventus gets another young contributor to the midfield that will help in the main goal of reJUVEnating an aging roster. If he does not, no big deal. Juventus can wash their hands of the player following the one year deal and send him back to Germany and their pocketbook remains safe. The hope remains for both sides that Weston will be able to sign along the dotted line for a few additional seasons in 2021.
Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming season, McKennie has made Juventus history already. The honor of being the first United States of America footballer to wear the black and white stripes. Following his introduction by Juventus, when asked for a message to the fans, McKennie said “You’ll get 100% out of me every game. It’s all or nothing for me.” That’s a good place to start.
By Justin Soforo