Weston McKennie Talks USMNT And Sitting At The Intersection Of Sport And Culture

The United States men’s national team looked like it was in a bad place earlier this month. With the eyes of the football watching world preparing to focus on the U.S. when it hosts Copa America in June and July, the Americans went out and got steamrolled by Colombia, 5-1. It was a drubbing — Colombia, one of the hottest teams in world football entering this summer, jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the opening 20 minutes. While the Americans grew into the game admirably and Timothy Weah scored a goal to cut into the deficit in the second half, the team completely let go of the rope over the final 15 minutes, as Colombia put three goals past Matt Turner due to their ability to pounce on mistakes.

Gregg Berhalter — who got the usual calls for his job from fans that any international manager receives following a shambolic performance — was brutally honest about the performance in the aftermath, and with a test against world power Brazil in their final friendly before the tournament days away, spirits seemed to be low. And then, something funny happened: the USMNT dug deep and drew the No. 5 team in the world, 1-1, behind a gem of a free kick by Christian Pulisic.

“Whenever we’re at our best is whenever everyone’s playing at a high intensity and has a maximum effort,” USMNT star Weston McKennie told Uproxx over Zoom about the lead-up to the game. “And so, we didn’t even want to focus on the result against Brazil, we were just focused on the performance. We said that we want to give our maximum performance, we want to give a performance that we’re happy with, that we can walk off feeling good about. And in return, if we can do that, then the result should be in our favor.”

McKennie is heading into this summer off of the best year of his career as a midfielder for Serie A giants Juventus. While he did not score in the campaign, McKennie led the team with 10 assists across all competitions and became a stalwart in the midfield, which was quite the turn of events considering how he described his return to the club after a loan spell with English side Leeds United last year that didn’t go especially well.

Now, McKennie is preparing for an important stretch, which goes well beyond a rumored return to the English top flight. He’ll be one of the leaders of the USMNT, someone who shoulders a gigantic load as a player and a personality both on and off the pitch. And if he’s showing off the mix of playmaking chops and good old fashioned American tenacity that have come to define him as a player, the aspirations of making noise on their home soil ahead of the 2026 World Cup won’t seem all that far-fetched for the young Yanks.

Prior to the start of Copa America, Uproxx caught up with McKennie to discuss his partnership with Puma, living at the intersection of sport and culture, his year at Juventus, all things USMNT, and that one video clip where he told an all-time great Italian footballer that he puts ranch dressing on his pizza.

What do you have going on with Puma?

We have a lot of stuff, actually. I just came from Miami, was at Christian’s stomping grounds in Little Havana. One of my buddies actually was just walking around because when I first started my journey with Puma, I always said I really love the marketing aspect of it, and just like the visibility of everything. And one of my buddies sent me a picture in Brickell City Center of me, Yunus [Musah], and Christian’s posters and stuff up in Brickell’s space, it’s pretty dope.

But no, we have a lot. I was just actually with Puma and Ferrari in Monaco recently, before I came here. It was amazing.

What was it about Puma that stuck out before you joined them, when you’re just seeing other athletes in Puma gear, or seeing Puma outside of the world of football?

Honestly, I’m someone … I love football. But I’m also someone that loves many other things, as well. I love golf, I love cars, I love fashion. And Puma is one of those brands that I started to notice that was very big in all these other things.

And that’s what I love, I love a brand that is well-connected in those aspects of things, because it represents me. I identify with that a lot. And honestly, also, I’ve been wearing Puma, I think probably six months before I even signed with them, because it was just a comfortable ass cleat. The traction whenever I cut, I have really bad plantar fasciitis, my problems were kind of going away whenever I was starting to wear Puma. So, I just figured, hey, it’s a brand that’s growing a lot. It’s big. I really love streetwear and the baggy kind of look and everything.

So, it was a brand that just fit with me, that I identified with a lot, and just their thought process of where they want to grow the game, how they want to help grow the game, as well. That is right in line with the motto that we have with the national team with change soccer in America forever. So, it linked up pretty well.

I know a big thing with you joining Puma was sitting at that intersection of culture and sport. What is so appealing to you about being able to merge those two worlds together?

It’s very big, honestly. I think one of the leading guys, I want to say, that really helped merge and kind of bring a big eye to culture and sport was Memphis Depay. He was very big into fashion, very big into music. You have people like Rihanna, as well, that were a part of the brand that, merging the music industry and sport, as well.

So, it was one of those things that, you know, I go to fashion week, I go to events, I do all these things. And even right now, for instance, whenever I’m going around and I’m walking around the city and whatnot, I actually enjoy wearing Puma gear. And I haven’t had that in a long time where I’ve enjoyed wearing something and it just identifies with me very well, and my style, and my comfort, and my personality.

I’m talking to you on the heels of a big year for Juventus where you led them in assists, towards the top of Serie A, a lot of your general passing stats were the best in your career. What was it about this Juve team, or what did you do, that really unlocked that creative side of your game to the extent that we saw?

Honestly, I think it was just one of those things where my back was against the wall and I had no other way to go but forward, and so that’s what I kind of did. We can also say that maybe it was the FUTUREs from Puma that helped me with the accuracy and everything, because honestly, when I started wearing those, everyone was looking at me like, oh, keep wearing those, bro, you look like a baller, actually. Now when you have those on your feet, people are maybe afraid to approach you versus whenever you have other shoes on. It’s like, okay, it’s whatever, I can go take the ball from them.

But nah, it was it was one of those things where, like I said, I had my back against wall, I had no other way to go. And I think I perform best whenever I have everyone doubting me and kind of pushing me on the way out. So, I just put my head down and do what I do best, and that’s work.

If I may ask, how did you feel your back was against the wall? Did you really feel like it was coming to a big fork in the road moment in your career, where it’s like, “I gotta perform, or I don’t know what that next chapter is going to be”?

I think honestly, yeah. I think it was one of those, even coming back, it was difficult. I’m sure you’ve heard, I’ve had all the problems that I had with Juventus when I first came back, and yeah, it was one of those things where it wasn’t the first time in my career — it was the first time in my pro career, but not the first time in my career in general — where I’ve been doubted and been kind of pushed on the way out of things. And that’s whenever I became me and reverted back to the things that I know best, which is believing in myself, cutting out all the noise, putting my head down, going to work, and doing 100 percent in everything that I do. I think honestly, if I didn’t do that, then where I’m at right now, it’d be a little bit different.

Right now, you are getting ready for a huge summer for the national team. I want to start by asking you what I asked Tim Weah a few weeks ago: Just generally, how are the vibes around the team heading into Copa America?

They’re amazing. Literally as we’re speaking, we have Gio Reyna, Joe Scally, and Brenden Aaronson walking by. We have a team lounge, we all get along so well, it’s like a big family. It’s family away from my original family from home, it’s amazing. The guys, we’re starting to click a little bit more on the field, as well, because this is the longest period of time that we’ve been together.

The last game against Brazil, you can kind of see it, that it was a little bit piecing together. You can look at the Colombia game and say, well, that was the complete opposite. But I think it was just a lot of mistakes on our own that caused the game to turn out the way it did. But I think we’re a team that, we kind of have our bases and the American culture in general has its bases — whenever you think of U.S. Soccer, you think they’ll fight til the end, play hard and honest and everything. And so, we have those anchors, but we also have our own little way of adding some things to it, as well.

So, I think it’ll be an interesting Copa America for us, and a big chance for us to show ourselves against other top level countries again.

You mentioned those two friendlies, and you guys really did show some serious resiliency against Brazil. And I guess want to know what happened in the three days between Colombia and Brazil, because it would have been very easy to just go through the motions in a friendly against Brazil, but I got the sense all 11 guys were hell bent on putting forth the best effort they could.

We spoke about it, obviously. And we realized, we asked ourselves questions in meetings, and we said, look, what does it look like to be successful? We named off a bunch of things, and kinda came to a realization that all those things that we named off to become successful was everything that we could actually control. Because there’s some things you can’t control in the game — you can’t control the referee, you can’t control the pitch, you can’t control the weather.

But the things that we named off — our effort, our intensity, knowing our roles, doing our roles to the best ability that we can, those are things that we can control. Whenever we’re at our best is whenever everyone’s playing at a high intensity and has a maximum effort. And so, we didn’t even want to focus on the result against Brazil, we were just focused on the performance. We said that we want to give our maximum performance, we want to give a performance that we’re happy with, that we can walk off feeling good about. And in return, if we can do that, then the result should be in our favor. The way that it ends up, obviously, sometimes doesn’t work like that. But that’s what we wanted, and that’s how we went into that game, as well.

So something you mentioned to me, and I heard you mention in other interviews, is that you guys have never been in the camp this long together. And I’m interested in how you guys have taken advantage of that, either on or off the pitch, to get yourselves in a place where you are locked in and ready to go come June 23.

I think there’s a balance that needs to be had whenever you’re in camps, as far as like, you know, freedom whenever we’re not training and freedom whenever things are close to the game and stuff. I think the coaching staff and Gregg do a very good job in terms of not making it feel like we’re in a prison. We have things around the hotel that we can do, we have a lounge, we have mini basketball hoops, we have a screen projector, we have Jenga, we have a ping pong table, kind of free flowing. We can leave the hotel after training and go just visit around and whatnot and come back for dinner, and sometimes we have dinners on our own, as well.

I think it’s really important in terms of the mental aspect of the players to feel like this is a family environment. It’s like you’re going home and visiting your family. So that’s how it is whenever I, at least, come into camp. I just feel like, yeah, maybe I’m not with my family, but I’m with my other family, because I’m spending time with these guys a lot throughout the year. And sometimes I see these guys more than I do my own family.

So yeah, I think heading into Copa America, it’s really important to keep that balance and make sure that everyone is happy and has enough energy to go into these games.

I want to ask about Gregg, because any national team manager is always going to be under a ton of pressure from people on the outside. And then I watch you guys, and there’s a clear connection with him and the players — someone scores and guys are running over to him and celebrating, you doing that during the Nations League in 2021 was the first time I noticed guys do that. What is it about Gregg that makes you guys go out there and give it your all for him?

Obviously, it’s a journey that we’ve been through together. A lot of us, we didn’t start our journey with him, but our four-year build-up to the World Cup started with him. And also, just because he’s a relatable coach. He was a player himself. He’s a coach that listens to the players in terms of, if he asks us things or asks our opinions on things, he’ll listen to it actually, and take into consideration, and try to accommodate for those things.

So, I think that’s what ultimately makes it easier to go out run through a brick wall for him. And he’s a very good player’s coach. He’ll talk to you about life in general. I’ve had moments in my career, and I’ve had heartbreaks in my career, and I’ve confided in and talked to him, and I’ve cried in front of him. And he holds everyone accountable — he really puts forward the whole thing, no player is bigger than the team. And I think that’s what also is valued in terms of the way players view him.

My last question, you famously stunned Giorgio Chiellini by saying you like ranch dressing on pizza. Do you know if he has tried that since he has come to the United States?

Honestly, I don’t know if he’s tried it, to be fair. Every time I see him, I just ask him how he’s liking America and what’s his plan and everything. And honestly, he loves it in America, which I was very surprised about because he’s a very traditional Italian type guy. But he came to America, and he’s actually, I think, he’s still in America right now working with LAFC a bit. It’s lovely to see that, his English is getting better, he’s just an all-around good guy. And hopefully if I see next time, or if I know that I’m gonna see him, I’ll just bring him a ranch bottle.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.