For the last few years, the Union have prided themselves on developing young American talents good enough to be part of the U.S. national team program.

One of those talents has become so important to the club that he is causing a significant headache.

Centerback Mark McKenzie’s outstanding rookie season has led the Union to try to keep him away from the U.S. national team squad for the Under-20 World Cup in May and June. Nothing is finalized yet, but there’s been saber-rattling behind the scenes for a while now.

“He could miss up to six, seven games … That has a major impact on us,” sporting director Ernst Tanner said Tuesday. “That has to be discussed with us, the player and the association. And we will do it when the right time is.”

There’s no obligation for teams to release players for that tournament like there is for senior-level FIFA events. But the Union’s stance has annoyed U.S. coach Tab Ramos, who has gotten along well with the club for a long time.

Earlier this month, Ramos told The Athletic that he had “received a letter from an MLS club this year saying if their player is playing (in MLS) he’s not going to the World Cup.” That sent lots of people digging to find out which club and which player. It didn’t take long to uncover the answer.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we really come to it," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "It’s a huge step to establish yourself as a starter in MLS, and backup last year with a really strong year … If we do talk with Tab and find common ground, there still is a possibility that the U-20s at that moment might be best for him. Still all decisions that need to be made.”

Tanner has been here before

Tanner went through a situation like this in 2011, when he was at Germany’s TSG Hoffenheim. Brazil’s national team put midfielder Roberto Firmino, now a star at Liverpool, on their provisional squad for that year’s Under-20 World Cup. The tournament overlapped with the first round of the German Cup and the first three weeks of the Bundesliga season. Hoffenheim refused to let him go.

Firmino played four games for Hoffenheim during that stretch, and in the three weeks after the tournament ended scored four of his seven goals on the season. He ended up playing 33 games across all competitions in the campaign.

“I would say it is nice to play [in] that youth competition, but if you are an important player of a men’s competition, it’s for sure a bigger value,” Tanner said.

Before he became a star for Liverpool and Brazil's national team, Roberto Firmino (right) played for Ernst Tanner at German club TSG Hoffenheim.
Frank Augstein / AP
Before he became a star for Liverpool and Brazil's national team, Roberto Firmino (right) played for Ernst Tanner at German club TSG Hoffenheim.

The Union aren’t the only MLS team that has put up roadblocks. Atlanta United and D.C. United are known to have stopped Ramos from getting players he wanted at other times. If Atlanta tries to keep creative midfielder Andrew Carleton out of the World Cup, that might cause an even bigger stir given the club’s high profile.

The Union would obviously benefit from McKenzie staying. And they aren’t trying to stop any other Union players from going. Tanner has already said he expects Matt Real to be there.

But the Union can also benefit from McKenzie going to the World Cup. While they might not admit it publicly, they know it privately. If McKenzie plays well, he’ll draw the eye of European clubs interested in buying him. He ought to be able to command a transfer fee well into the seven figures. The Union have long said they want to sell their academy products, and they know the time to do it is coming very soon.

The U.S.' big potential

Another factor is the real possibility that the U.S. can make a deep run in the tournament if it has a full-strength team. Some players in the age group have already broken through at the senior level, including striker Josh Sargent, winger Tim Weah and central midfielder Tyler Adams.

They’d join marquee players from the U.S.' recent run to the Concacaf Under-20 championship such as Sergino Dest (Ajax), and Ulysses Llanez (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Alex Mendez (SC Freiburg). Also keep an eye on Nick Taitague, who’s making his way up at Germany’s Schalke 04.

McKenzie counts among those rising stars. He captained the U.S. during World Cup qualifying, and would likely start with Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), Real and Dest at the World Cup.

The U.S. reached the quarterfinals of the last two under-20 World Cups, in 2017 and 2015. Could a team with all its big guns reach the semifinals for the first time since 1989?

That would be a welcome salve for still-open wounds from the senior men’s team’s failure to qualify for last year’s World Cup. It would also boost Ramos' candidacy to coach the under-23 team for the 2020 Olympic cycle, and perhaps a MLS team in the future.

Finally, there’s the player’s own desire. We don’t know what that is, and we might not find out until McKenzie gets home from the senior national team’s winter training camp in California. He’ll stay with the team through its two upcoming games, next Monday against Panama (8 p.m., ESPN2 and UniMás) and Feb. 2 against Costa Rica (3:30 p.m., Fox and UniMás).

We do know that McKenzie takes a lot of pride in playing for the national team and the Union. But this will be his only shot at playing in an under-20 World Cup.

“Things change week to week, things change month to month,” Curtin said. “The year that he had last year, let’s be honest, was unexpected. He got thrown into the fire and he rose to the occasion like a veteran would. … I know Tab has a priority. We have a priority here at the Union as well. We’ll make the right decision for everybody involved.”