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Ronaldo, Pogba and Harry Potter - Inside the world of USMNT and Juventus ace Weston McKennie

8:00 AM EDT 7/20/22
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Ahead of the biggest stretch of his professional career, Weston McKennie is... well, being Weston McKennie.

"I don't know if it's just a trend or if I'm actually that funny," McKennie tells GOAL with a laugh, "but it seems most of the things that I do here everyone's like, 'What is he doing now?'"

It's a fair question, you have to admit, mostly because McKennie always seems to be doing something.

He popped up at Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos' celebrity game in Miami in June, where he mingled with some of the game's brightest stars of past and present.

He's wreaked absolute havoc at Juventus' training facility with his toy RC car, prompting new team-mate Angel Di Maria to dub over his adventures with F1 sound effects.

He's celebrated with fans, danced with babies, and hit impossible basketball trick shots.

He's stood awkwardly behind Paul Pogba in line for a haircut, giving social media their latest inspiration for meme material.

In a world designed for players to fall in line, McKennie is a showman, on and off the field. He scores stunning goals, makes ridiculous tackles and celebrates it all with a Harry Potter spell.

He's someone that never fails to capture attention, and that's because McKennie is truly and unequivocally himself, for better or worse.

Despite the events of the last year, which saw him reach the lowest moments of his professional career, it doesn't seem that McKennie has changed. He's grown, yes, but he hasn't changed.

"My goal was to come back here and be fit, not to get fit, so I did a lot of training over the summer and most of the people when I came back here didn't recognize me."

"My goal was to come back here and be fit, not to get fit, so I did a lot of training over the summer and most of the people when I came back here didn't recognize me."

And so now, with the World Cup and a vital Serie A campaign looming, we're getting a look at a new, improved Weston McKennie who is, once again, still Weston McKennie.

"That's like my happy space: joking around with people," he says. "It's just my personality. It's just who I am. It's amazing to be able to have players that accept that and know that it's not me just messing around the whole time and not taking things seriously. It's just my personality."

It hasn't all been lighthearted and fun for McKennie over the last year or so. It's been a time when he's been forced to do a lot of growing up, much like most other 23-year-olds.

The most notable flashpoint? That USMNT ban, which saw him kicked off the team briefly for a violation of Covid-19 protocol.

He battled back from that, earning back the trust of Gregg Berhalter and his teammates. It was a mistake, a colossal mistake, but it was one that McKennie quickly righted, reclaiming his place in the starting lineup by the time World Cup qualifying was over.

In a matter of months, he went from golden boy to pariah all the way back again. But that time away from the team was a dark one for the midfielder.

In the days following the incident, the social media pile-up was vicious, with fans joining USMNT legends like Landon Donovan in questioning McKennie's commitment and maturity.

Ever since he was a young player in Dallas, McKennie's had concerns about how others perceived him, both as a player and a person. He admits that outside criticism used to really truly bother him, and you wonder if, in a way, it still does.

"Before, I paid attention to it," McKennie says of coping with criticism in general. "Like, when I was younger, I was that kid that used my mom's membership to go on TopDrawerSoccer to look at my rankings. I paid attention to all of that stuff.

"Now, it's one of those things where if I'm happy, I'm happy. If I feel like I'm playing good, I feel like I'm doing good, because for me, and all of the people around me know, I'm my biggest self-critic. I'm my biggest critic, 1,000 percent."

He continues: "We don't really try and pay attention that much to a lot of social media because one day it's 'They're gonna win the World Cup', and the next day, it's like, 'Are they even gonna qualify?' We know what our goals are, we know what our objectives are."

But that suspension wasn't all. There was the injury, the one that robbed him of several months of the Serie A season. By the time he returned, for the final game of the 2021-22 campaign, we already knew that Juve would go trophy-less for the first time in 11 years.

And then there were the transfer rumors, the ones that always pop up this time of year when you play at one of Europe's biggest clubs.

"That's one of the biggest things as an athlete and as a player: you want to be where you're wanted, where you're valued," McKennie says just days after Juve boss Max Allegri denied the club has any intention of selling him.

"I've seen things that I didn't even know about, that I see on the transfer rumors. It's stuff that I'm like, 'Oh, wow. I've never heard of that' and, obviously, it's very hard to ignore. You're gonna see it eventually. You're gonna see it at some point."

He's gotten better at dealing with those types of things, he says, thanks to the help of several superstar teammates.

When you reach a certain level of this sport, you can't please everyone. When you make mistakes, not everyone will forgive you. And, when you're a player constantly in the spotlight, you can't be 'on' all the time, even with McKennie's energy.

And that's something that he's still learning.

"I think the person I've seen it most with was Cristiano," McKennie says. "The type of stuff that he has to do and the type of media he has to do, and events and places he has to go to, you have to be really strong mentally.

"Even me, like I get tired sometimes, when these guys ask me to do stuff, and I'm just like, 'Oh, please no, just let me do it later, please.'

"So, I can only imagine what it's like when [players like Ronaldo] have to do it. Like, it's demanded of them. I learned a little bit from him, in terms of just getting it done. It's all part of the job."

Ronaldo is long gone at Juventus, but McKennie is joined by a new superstar teammate set in Turin. That new teammate is one that, in many ways, McKennie feels like he can relate to.

Pogba's triumphant return to Italy is one of the stories of the summer, the prodigal son returning home after several trying years in England.

Part of the vitriol Pogba faced at Manchester United was caused by his personality, by the fact that he found joy in life off the field.

And that's why McKennie is so excited to link up with Pogba, on and off the field.

"It's a great opportunity," he says, "because he can play a lot of passes that a lot of people can't play and I feel like I make a lot of runs that a lot of people have to be able to play those passes to get it to me.

"To have someone of his caliber in the midfield, it's definitely something that I'm looking forward to but at the same time, for me, it's as important on the field as off the field.

"His energy, his vibe, his personality, I can kind of relate to it in so many ways and I think that it's good for the players here and good for me because he knows how to let loose sometimes and joke around sometimes but also when it's time to work, it's time to work. It's something that I can definitely feed off."

McKennie seems to feed off any energy he can find, and he'll need it in the coming months.

The season is just beginning, with Juventus set to take part in the Soccer Champions Tour in the U.S. for games against Chivas, Barcelona and Real Madrid. From there, preseason will continue on leading up to a huge Serie A season, with Juve hoping to reclaim their place atop Italian soccer.

And then there's the World Cup, the moment that American soccer has been building towards for eight years at this point. Everything leading up to Qatar 2022 is vital.

McKennie feels ready for that, having spent his brief summer making sure he was in shape for the season to come.

"My goal was to come back here and be fit, not to get fit," he says, "so I did a lot of training over the summer and most of the people when I came back here didn't recognize me!"

But, let's be honest, McKennie is instantly recognizable. He's one of American soccer's stars, the jokester that always finds a way to lighten the mood.

He's the training-ground prankster, the social media darling, the midfield star that always has a smile on his face.

McKennie is McKennie. And, as bigger tests await over the next few months, the question around him is beginning to change.

It's no longer "What's Weston doing now?" Instead, it's "What's Weston going to do next?"