The Juventus team that Weston McKennie rejoined this summer no longer contains any of his childhood heroes. When he arrived at the club for the first time, back in 2020, he was greeted by faces that used to look down from his bedroom wall.
“Not many people know when I was younger, when Italy won the 2006 World Cup, growing up I had a poster of them lifting the trophy in my room,” said McKennie during an interview released on the club’s YouTube channel last month. “Seeing some of those guys personally and potentially playing with them was a surreal feeling.”
It was a phone call from one of those world champions, Andrea Pirlo, that helped persuade McKennie to come in the first place. The former Italy midfielder had just been promoted from coaching Juventus’s reserve side to take charge of the first team. Giorgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon were still part of the playing squad.
Idols became friends. Chiellini’s incredulous reaction to McKennie’s eating habits became a viral moment from Amazon’s All or Nothing docuseries covering that 2020-21 Juventus season but their mutual fondness was evident even then. After Chiellini left to join LA Galaxy last summer, they were reunited during the Bianconeri’s summer tour of the US. McKennie hurled his boots in the air and rushed forward at first sight of his former teammate.
That puppy-dog enthusiasm has always been a part of his charm. McKennie believes he “could make friends with a rock if I needed to”, a necessary adaptation for someone whose family relocated across states and continents while he was growing up, due to his father’s job in the US Air Force.
He certainly won people over in Turin. Almost from day one, Pirlo was full of praise for McKennie’s work rate but also the way he could split a defence with an off-the-ball run: “one of his most important qualities”. And yet, neither that manager nor his successor, Massimiliano Allegri, have seemed to know quite what to do with such gifts.
Pirlo was a novice, promoted from coaching Juventus’s reserve side to take charge of the first team with no other experience in that role. At times, he seemed to want to use McKennie almost as a false nine – notionally starting games in midfield but pushing up into positions beyond the centre-forwards when his team had the ball.
Juventus finished fourth, ending a run of nine consecutive league titles, and Pirlo was fired. The reappointment of Allegri, who had overseen five of those Scudetto triumphs, was supposed to restore order. Juventus finished the following season in the same position but with eight fewer points and 20 fewer goals scored.
Allegri, too, had visions of McKennie as a prolific scorer. After a goal in Juventus’s first summer exhibition, against Cesena, the manager shouted that he needed to reach double figures that season, even though McKennie has never scored more than five in a season. In the end, McKennie struck just three times in Serie A and once more in the Supercoppa.
Allegri is portrayed as a great pragmatist capable of reshaping his approach to fit the talents of his team, but he seemed not to have any more clear ideas of how to use McKennie than Pirlo had. The American was deployed at every spot across the midfield as well as full-back.
In the Italian sporting lexicon, “jolly” is used to denote a utility player, capable of filling a variety of roles. It seemed to fit McKennie, with his easy laugh and quick recovery from setbacks, in whichever language it was heard. Both Pirlo and Allegri valued him, yet his failure to make any position his own meant he could never be viewed as indispensable.
When Leeds United made their move for McKennie in January, there was not a good enough reason to say no. Juventus, facing up to a scandal that would eventually see them docked 10 points for false accounting, and banned for a year from competing in Europe, had paid just over €20m to sign the player and now were being offered a potential €35m to sell if the Premier League club took up their option to make the deal permanent after an initial six-month loan.
Instead, Leeds were relegated, and McKennie returned to Turin. Much of the reporting in Italy at the time assumed that this was only a temporary state of affairs. In the six months since McKennie’s departure, Juventus had leaned more heavily on an emerging crop of young Italian talent from their academy. Nicolò Fagioli and Fabio Miretti were gobbling up opportunities in midfield. It was hard to see where McKennie would fit.
Juventus fans were more excited about a different American, Timothy Weah, newly signed from Lille. Perhaps some of that enthusiasm grew from name recognition for the son of a former Ballon d’Or winner. But the departure of Juan Cuadrado meant there was also an obvious vacancy, at right wing-back, for a player who had switched between wide forward and defender in France.
That is where Weah began the season, starting in a 3-0 win over Udinese and a 1-1 draw against Bologna. For the third game, though, away to Empoli, McKennie replaced him in the lineup, delivering a mature performance in which he won the joint-most tackles of any player on the pitch.
Afterward, Allegri explained the decision to switch by suggesting that Weah still needed time to adjust to how football was played in Serie A. “Italian football is very tactical,” said the manager. “It wears you out mentally.”
McKennie, apparently, is not so easy to tire. He has started every game at right wing-back since and been one of Juventus’s most impressive performers. It was his brilliant cross-field pass that set up Dusan Vlahovic for the final strike in a 3-1 win over Lazio, last season’s runners-up, but even before that he had done essential work in the buildup to both his team’s other goals.
Could it be, after all this time, that he has finally found his position? McKennie’s own father does not think so, exhorting Allegri in a post on X this week to: “Put Mckennie in the midfield! Weah on the wing! They have proven they play well together in their perspective positions!”
It would certainly suit the US men’s national team to have both players starting regularly, but it is harder to make a case that it would be best for Juventus. The club has had an up-and-down start to the season, Allegri’s negative tactics in some games driving fans to distraction, but McKennie’s performances have been among the brighter spots.
It is too soon for sweeping judgments, but such steady displays at least hint at his growth since arriving in Italy for the first time three years ago. In a recent interview with Dazn, McKennie compared Italian football to chess, saying that in Germany he could spend his energies freely knowing he could always use his speed to run back and recover space. “Here,” he said, “everything is more precise.”
Perhaps so, even if finding the perfect spot for McKennie has felt to his coaches like the opposite of an exact science. His childhood heroes have departed, but – contrary to what some onlookers thought this summer – his own story there has a way to run yet.