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Weston McKennie: We Can Win The World Cup

My mindset when I decided to move to Europe to pursue my professional soccer career, rather than going to college or signing in America, was that I have an A plan, but I don't have a B or C plan. That's the mentality I have in football and life in general. I'm headstrong.

But at the age of 16, I was cut from the U.S. national team during its preparations for the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

I thought I wasn't going to have a career, because I was told I wasn't good enough. So my journey with the national team wasn't always smooth. I had a moment where I was broken and doubted myself. And when I finally made my debut with the national team in 2017, the coach that had cut me was a part of the team at the time.

I could have been really mad at him for saying I wasn't good enough. But I wasn't going to hold a grudge, because that's what gave me a chip on my shoulder to put in the work to get me to where I am today: Playing for Juventus—one of the top teams in the Italian league—and in the U.S. men's national team going to the Qatar World Cup.

Winning the 2022 World Cup

A lot of people may say it's far-fetched, but just like every team that goes into the World Cup, you go in with intentions of winning it. I think winning the World Cup is within reach for us. We are a bunch of young players with high spirits and high energy, and being the youngest you always want to prove something. Especially playing against big teams.

We want to go into the group stage with England, Wales, and Iran thinking we can win it and we want to finish top. Everyone who knows soccer knows that at any game, anything can happen. We're not expecting anything else but a dog fight, so we're excited.

USMNT Soccer Player Weston McKennie
Weston McKennie of the United States looking for the ball during a game between Japan and USMNT at Düsseldorf Arena on September 23, 2022 in Düsseldorf, Germany. Daniela Porcelli/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Obviously we don't trick ourselves, we know that we don't have as much talent as a France or a Brazil, but we know each other, we know our connection. We know that when we're all on it together, we're a hard team to play.

And we have players on the team that can change a game, who have that spark where, maybe when the game is at 0-0 in the 80th minute, they can make something happen.

All the players are a joy to play with, but people that I have a really good understanding with are Tyler Adams and Christian Pulisic. That's mainly because we have known each other for so long.

Me and Tyler have kind of a similar role and style of play. Christian was my first friend on the national team when I was 13 years old, so we know each other's strengths and weaknesses, we know which shows we like to watch and what foods we like to eat. We have a really good understanding, on and off the pitch.

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Weston McKennie #8 of the United States celebrates a 2-0 win over Mexico during a FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifying match between the United States and Mexico at TQL Stadium on November 12, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Emilee Chinn/Getty

Balancing priorities as a national team player

I'm always the one that tries to bring smiles and laughter to the team, whether that is going overboard with something—because I'm a pretty extra guy—or just making a fool of myself.

A lot of people say I'm an attention seeker, but I'm not. I just like making people laugh. I think that's important, because there might be a day where people don't feel it or don't have the energy to make the extra run. But I have a really good knowledge of when it is time to switch and be serious. I have a good balance where players know how goofy and silly I am off the field, but also respect me on the field.

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I'm obviously human, I'm not programmed to always be happy and I have my down moments. I feel like that's the most important time for me to disconnect. If I'm playing a bad stint of games or I'm injured, I'm very hard on myself, I'm my biggest critic. Nobody has to tell me when I'm having bad games.

I love to come home and try to play piano, or I go downstairs to my studio and make music or play card games. Whenever I can do other things and keep my mind off soccer, it makes me realize how much I miss it.

Then I'm able to have these moments in my head that are like flashbacks to memories from when I was a kid, moments in my career or my life in general. Those help me build a new confidence and belief in myself. I can go back out there and say to myself: "You are where you are and you belong where you are because of everything you sacrificed and all of the hard work you put in. Nobody can take that away from you, only yourself." And that's when everything clicks for me, and I can get into a positive mindset again.

Facing former teammates and raising the U.S. team's profile

When we play against Wales in our opening group stage match it will likely be against two former teammates of mine, Aaron Ramsey and Rabbi Matondo. I've never played with any of the England or Iran guys, but if we advance and in the later stages play against the Netherlands, you have Matthijs de Ligt, who used to play with me at Juventus. It's always fun to come up against people that you have played with in your club team.

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Weston McKennie #8 of the United States turns and moves with the ball during a game between Mexico and USMNT at TQL Stadium on November 12, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Brad Smith/Getty

There's so much banter that goes on in the locker rooms when you talk about each other's national team. Obviously us being the U.S., everyone thinks that we don't know how to play soccer. We always get the most banter thrown at us, so it's always nice to be able to play against one of them and win or make it a really hard game so they realize, "Oh, y'all are for real."

One of the mottos that we had at the beginning of the four-year cycle preparing for the World Cup was, "Change the way the world views American soccer" and I think this is a great opportunity to do that. Not only for the world to see what we are capable of, but for back home as well, to show that soccer is an option for kids.

If we perform well in this World Cup, Major League Soccer could be a totally different league by the 2026 tournament, when the U.S. is co-hosting with Canada and Mexico. Maybe not top five in the world, but I believe it will make huge steps forward.

We as players notice soccer is advancing in America and that we're a part of it and can influence it positively. Soccer has a really good opportunity to be the next big thing that everyone wants to play and watch. The dream would be going into a city and seeing soccer jerseys all over.

All of us want to be part of that and be bigger than just our own careers. We want to do something and change something, and be able to say in 20 years: You know that moment when soccer really exploded? We had something to do with that.

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The U.S. is ranked in the middle of the pack but McKennie is undaunted: “Everyone who knows soccer knows that at any game, anything can happen.” Patrick Smith/FIFA/Getty

Playing in Europe and dreams for the future

Hopefully for the next four years I'll still be in Europe. Soccer is unpredictable, but if all goes well and according to my plan, then I'll still be in Europe, still feeling young and fit, and like my 20-year-old self in energy, jokes and game style.

I know a lot of people say to dream really big. But I'm also a realist, I'm someone that wants to set goals I can accomplish within the next month or year. Being the best player in the world would be a dream come true, but in reality it's probably not possible. For me, right now, my A plan is to stay healthy and to be available for my team and ready to give everything I have.

Playing in Europe and playing for Juventus is amazing. Who knows where next and where I may end up? But no matter where you are playing, you can only play in your national team, and it's an honor. It's something that I am really grateful for. I hope by the end of my career I can win a Champions League and a league and have a memorable national team career.

When I step on the field to play my first game in the 2022 World Cup, I think I will have a story flashback of all that has transpired before to lead me up until now; all the sacrifices that my family made, that I made, that my friends made playing soccer with me out on the street.

It will be a moment where I can stand there and say: Every obstacle I went through, every hardship I had and every happy, sad, mad moment, was worth it.

Weston McKennie is a midfielder for the U.S. men's national soccer team and plays for Juventus. You can follow him on Instagram @west.mckennie.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Newsweek senior editor Jenny Haward.

This My Turn essay features in the latest issue of Newsweek, on stands November 25.

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