Mark McKenzie On KRC Genk, MLS, And USMNT Aspirations For The Copa America And World Cup

Mark McKenzie On KRC Genk, MLS, And USMNT Aspirations For The Copa America And World Cup

An interview with Mark McKenzie, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You joined KRC Genk in January of 2021 from MLS side Philadelphia Union. How do you reflect on your time at the club so far?

“It has been a fantastic journey so far because I always dreamed of playing in Europe from a young age.

“I remember the feeling of excitement that I got when I was signing my contract, even though, it was actually a strange time for me to arrive in Belgium because in January 2021, COVID-19 restrictions were still in place and life was very quiet around me.

“Thankfully, we were still allowed to play football and my full focus was on making an impact and getting on to the field because I wanted to adjust to the style of the team and acclimatise to life in Belgium as soon as possible.

“It was my first time being abroad and I remained level-headed in those difficult first few weeks as I adapted to being away from home, but I am now into my third year at the club, and I am loving life at Genk and in Belgium.

“I have lifted silverware with the club during that time and we have qualified for European football, and I am thankful for the opportunities that I have had to play over 100 games for the football club so far.”

You won the Belgian Cup in your first six months at the club. How special was that moment for you so early into life in Belgium?

“It was huge for me and for the club. Lifting a trophy such as the National Cup means so much to everyone at the club from the players and staff to the fans so to be able to do that so soon into my time here, it was wonderful.

“We faced Standard Liege in the final and I was named on the bench, but I was able to come on to help the team later into the game when we were 2-1 up, and be on the pitch when the final whistle blew to confirm us as cup winners.

“That moment will live with me forever because you work so hard every day in training with the hope that you can achieve success in your career and lifting that trophy has given me the desire to achieve even more going forward in my career.”

Which players are the big characters within the Genk dressing room at the moment?

“We have so many (laughs).

“I love to laugh and joke when the time is right, and our dressing room is the same as a whole.

“I would pick out Bilal El Khannouss as being one of the strong characters within our dressing room. He is still a teenager, but he is a big player for us and someone who is fun to be around.

“I would also pick out Joseph Paintsil too because he is an experienced player who has been at the club for a number of years, and he is very good with the younger players in our team.

“Those two sum up our dressing room where everyone is together to work as hard as we can for the team while also being able to enjoy spending time in each other’s company by making each other laugh and having fun together.”

You played at Philadelphia Union for three MLS seasons prior to moving to Europe. How do you reflect on your time at the Union overall?

“It was a wonderful time in my career because I was an academy kid who came through the levels to make it in the first team.

“The current manager of the club, Jim Curtin, was my youth coach before he went on to become first team manager in 2014.

“Our second-team was called Bethlehem Steel, and I made several appearances for them at the age of 16 and 17 before making the grade with the Union at first-team level.

“It was special to reflect on my journey when I made it to the first team because I went from ball boy to academy kid to first-team player and that is the journey that all young players dream of making.

“I made over 50 first-team appearances for the club, and won the MLS Supporters’ Sheild with them in 2020, before moving to Genk and my time there set me up in good stead to take the next step in my career.

“I will always be grateful to everyone at Philadelphia Union for the times that we shared together.”

You have represented the United States at international level on 13 occasions to date and you were a part of the team that won the CONCACAF Nations League in 2020. What does representing the national team mean to you and your family?

“It is a blessing to represent my country at international level. I do not take it for granted and it means so much to me and those close to me.

“To be part of a select few players who have won a trophy with the national team too is a wonderful feeling because we put so much hard work into everything that we do and to be able to repay the faith that has been put in you when you receive international recognition is special.

“Every time I have the opportunity to pull on the national team jersey means so much to me. My goal is to work as hard as I can to hopefully force myself into the squad for the Copa America this summer and the World Cup of 2026 which we will be playing in at home.

“It is such an exciting time to be an American footballer and I want to make sure that I can give myself the best possible chance to represent the national team as much as I can in the future.”

As a defender, which forward players have been your toughest opponents in your career to date?

“Great question. I have to start with Zlatan Ibrahimovic because he was a real handful physically, but everyone is aware of the fantastic ability that he has on the ball too which he showed when I faced him in MLS.

“Even towards the latter part of his career, he made such an impact in MLS and earned the respect of everyone.

“Since I have moved to Belgium, I would pick out my former teammate Paul Onuachu. Although I have not faced him directly in a match, training against him every day was tough because he is so strong and he is a natural finisher.

“So far this season, I would pick out Hugo Cuypers and Gift Orban of KAA Gent because they are very good footballers and never make it easy for you.

“Finally, I have to mention Victor Boniface who is now at Bayer Leverkusen and scoring a lot of goals. He was at Union Saint-Gilloise last season and was so impressive, so it is no surprise to me to see him doing so well in the Bundesliga now.

“I have learned so much from playing against these players over the years and by facing my teammates in training because they also drive me on to improve with our battles on the training field.”

Finally, Mark, you are in your mid-twenties and have many years ahead of you in football. What are your aspirations for the future?

“I want to play to the best of my ability as often as I can to help KRC Genk achieve success because I am loving my time at the club and the fans deserve success for their amazing support.

“Added to that, I want to play the Copa America this summer which is being hosted in the United States. It would be incredibly special to represent my national team at that level, particularly with the World Cup on the horizon in the coming years, too.

“Longer term, I have aspirations of playing in a top five European league and in the Champions League because every player dreams of walking out to that iconic music.

“However, I am fully aware that to achieve those aspirations, I need to work as hard as I can at KRC Genk to turn them into a reality.”