Pulisic and McKennie face each other as rivals in Italy before joining forces again for US

Weston McKennie thought back to when he first met Christian Pulisic, a pair of 13-year-olds on a bus from a hotel to training camp in Carson, California.

“I used to sit behind him. I used to squirt empty air with a little bit of water into his ear,” McKennie said. “I was scared to take the elevator, so he used to walk with me up the stairs, like 11 flights of stairs, after training all the time.”

A dozen years later, they are mainstays on the U.S. national team as it prepares for this summer's Copa América and the 2026 World Cup, but first will be rivals when Pulisic's AC Milan faces McKennie's Juventus on April 27 or 28 with second place at stake in Italy's Serie A.

“More fun playing with him, so I don’t really have to worry about him offensively,” McKennie said with a laugh during a conference call Tuesday to promote the match.

Both found success as teenaged American standouts in Europe, struggled in their early 20s and reemerged in 2023-24 for their best club seasons as 25-year-olds.

Pulisic has thrived under coach Stefano Pioli, scoring 10 Serie A goals and 13 overall, topping his previous highs of nine league goals and 11 overall with Chelsea in 2019. He was given a string of starts on the right side of the attack — U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter has preferred him on the left — and of late has been shifted to a central attacking midfield role.

Pulisic regained what he termed “that self belief.”

“I don’t think it’s so important to exactly find the exact reason for why I’ve scored some more goals or whatever you want to call success,” he said. “It comes and goes at times in players' careers and we both kind of needed to find that again and, yeah, luckily we have.”

A native of Hershey, Pennsylvania, Pulisic debuted with Borussia Dortmund at age 17 in January 2016 and moved to Chelsea for the 2019-20 season. He became the first American to play in a Champions League final in 2021, winning a medal, but struggled for playing time in 2022-23 under his third manager in four seasons. In his 2022 book, Pulisic disclosed he battled depression in the winter of 2020-21.

While Pulisic is expressive and introspective, McKennie is the U.S. national team extrovert.

“I might be a little bit different than Christian in terms of I want to be happy,” he said. “I want to feel like I’m at home because being away from family a lot, it’s very important for me to have a kind of family environment and people that I get along with.”

McKennie spoke of the upcoming matchup as a competition for “bragging rights,” and Pulisic of how when they get together it becomes time for video games.

McKennie said he missed ranch dressing and Cheez-Its in Italy and smirked while saying the crackers should be kept away from Pulisic.

“You can’t give the Cheez-Its to Christian. He'll kill 'em," McKennie said.

“That's such a lie,” shot back Pulisic, cracking up.

Citing the switch to Serie A as ideal, McKennie mentioned Pulisic even gets to live on a golf course. Pulisic cited "the change in mindset and just the way of life here, feeling that family environment” and his face brightened when he discussed “the trust and the confidence from a top team, and being given that right away.”

McKennie was born in Fort Lewis, Washington, spent a good deal of his youth in Little Elm, Texas, then left the FC Dallas academy and made his pro debut at age 18 with Germany’s Schalke in May 2017. He was loaned to Juventus for the 2020-21 season and signed a four-year contract in March 2021. He struggled at times and was loaned to relegation-bound Leeds for the second half of the 2022-23 Premier League season, then returned to Juventus and became a standout this season under coach Massimiliano Allegri. McKennie leads the team with seven assists in 30 Serie A matches.

“During the summer, I looked at myself and realized I lost a little bit belief in myself, to be completely honest. The confidence was kind of low.,” McKennie said.

McKennie recalled a conversation with Allegri when preseason training began last summer.

“He joked with me a little bit, was like Wes, you got to start running now and you stop running at the end of the season,” McKennie said. “So that’s kind of what I’ve been doing.”

Running is fine. Tight indoor spaces are not.

McKennie still hasn't gotten over his elevator phobia.

“I still jump out the elevator when too many people get in,” he said. “I get caught waiting the whole time.”

Both spoke of the pride for playing for the U.S., which as the second-youngest team in the tournament reached the second round in Qatar two years ago before getting knocked out by the Netherlands.

“With the showing that we had in 2022, I think we kind of open the eyes up to the world that we can compete and we’re not just looked at as a team that goes until the final whistle," McKennie said. "We have that quality, but now we can also play, as well.”

He anticipated chippier play at the Copa América, where the U.S. opens against Bolivia on June 23, plays Panama four days later and finishes the group stage against Uruguay on July 1.

“This summer will be an amazing test again and where we can show the CONCACAF side of us a little bit," McKennie said, laughing, "the little more I guess you can say dirty side — I don’t really want to say that.”


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