Weston McKennie to Leeds United is a done deal and the links between Elland Road and the United States grow stronger but Germany and Gelsenkirchen is where the roots of this transfer lie.
McKennie has joined a club who are stars and stripes in so many respects: with Americans as their head coach and primary assistant, future American owners and, after McKennie’s transfer from Juventus went through, a squad with three USMNT internationals in it. But as negotiations played out last week, German Bundesliga side Schalke were referenced in dispatches as the place where Leeds’ tracking of McKennie first started, the part of his career which caught director of football Victor Orta’s eye and got him thinking.
Orta has a tendency to work like that.
Initial interest develops into long-term appreciation and sometimes, as with Robin Koch, a deal is done to sign a player who Orta has been monitoring in the background for years.
Leeds, it transpires, first thought about buying McKennie in 2020, the summer when Juventus prised him out of Schalke, initially on loan. After that, with the move becoming permanent the following March, the idea of recruiting him was shelved but Orta has a habit of staying in touch, keeping the door open and nurturing relationships in the meantime. Communication improves the odds of a successful outcome if the opportunity presents itself again.
That was where Leeds found themselves with a week of this year’s January window to go, after a call to Juventus was met with a receptive response at the other end of the line. Before last Tuesday, when an enquiry from Elland Road bloomed into active talks about the 24-year-old, it was not certain McKennie would be leaving the Italian giants this month. He was aware that Leeds admired him and there was talk about Premier League interest from Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest but none of it promised anything definitive.
McKennie, in any case, had been a regular presence in Juventus’ team during the first half of the season and, for much of this month, Leeds spent time thinking about Azzedine Ounahi, Morocco’s World Cup star.
Signing a new central midfielder was a temptation but not an outright necessity. As they came into January, Leeds’ priorities were a defender capable of playing left-back and a quality forward — bases covered by the £10million ($12.3m) arrival of Max Wober from Red Bull Salzburg and the record-breaking capture of Georginio Rutter from Hoffenheim for a fee that could rise to £35m ($43.2m) with add-ons.
The club had allowed Mateusz Klich to move on after more than four years in England, terminating his contract so he could join DC United ahead of the 2023 MLS season, and that slimmed down their midfield ranks, but whereas Wober and Rutter were viewed as essential additions, signing a new central midfielder was dependent on availability and price. The latter, in the end, was where Leeds’ interest in Ounahi fell down.
When they asked French club Angers about Ounahi last summer, they were told he would cost between £8m and £12m ($9.9m and $14.8m).
When they went back to Angers in this window, following his impressive World Cup with surprise semi-finalists Morocco, the club currently bottom of Ligue 1 were talking about a fee closer to £20m ($24.7m), if not more. Napoli, the Serie A leaders, were also quoted a high price for the 22-year-old which they declined to match. Orta told Leeds not to go overboard on him and, if it came to it, to leave Ounahi alone.
By last week, Leeds were actively working on McKennie instead and Napoli had not budged either.
It might have been a sign of the lack of active offers for Ounahi that on Sunday, with less than three days to go before the transfer deadline, Angers sold him to fellow French club Marseille for less than £10m ($12.3m) up front — a modest fee given his performances at the World Cup.
McKennie was valued much higher, above £20m ($24.7m) by Juventus — and that price tag was considered realistic.
The deal struck by Leeds, a loan for the rest of this season with an option to buy which the Yorkshire side plan to activate in the summer, will cost them closer to £30m ($37m) if they do take McKennie permanently, reflecting his Champions League experience (24 appearances) and his status as one of the leading members of the USMNT squad.
Triggering that option to sign him full-time will rely on Leeds avoiding relegation, and there are also other conditions attached.
Based on assurances he has been given about what his role will be at Elland Road, McKennie can expect to be in the thick of Leeds’ Premier League campaign, provided he stays fit.
Juventus are in crisis after an investigation into their financial management ended with a 15-point deduction in the league.
Head coach Max Allegri even talked about relegation as a genuine threat for a side now 13th in Serie A after they lost 2-0 to Monza on Sunday, a match which played out as McKennie was preparing to board a flight to the UK.
Nonetheless, a loan deal with an option for McKennie suits them. Even if Leeds had completed a permanent deal now, Juventus were not planning to spend money on new players in what was left of the January window.
His transfer is highly likely to become permanent later this year but if for some reason that plan falls through, McKennie’s value will not diminish drastically. Where Leeds are concerned, they avoid a scenario where they take on a £30m ($37m) fee and then fall back down to the EFL in May. Contracts held by players of McKennie’s stature invariably include relegation release clauses.
After several days of discussion over the structure of the deal, a loan with an option to buy worked for everyone.
There were complications on Friday night, at a point where McKennie thought the transfer was as good as wrapped up. By then, he had started saying his goodbyes to team-mates in Turin and was getting ready to travel to England. Further discussions the next morning, though, got all sides on the same page and by lunchtime, Allegri was confirming to the Italian press that McKennie would not be involved against Monza. “He is at the centre of a negotiation,” Allegri said. “I think the club have already found an agreement with his new team.”
“It was stressful,” McKennie told The Athletic after officially joining Leeds tonight. He had first been told that a bid for him from Yorkshire might be on its way a fortnight ago. “I’m at home and one minute I’m chilling. The next I’m calling my agent like ‘do I need to pack, do I not need to pack, what am I doing?’ I’ve got three dogs, I’ve got everything up and running in Turin, perfected. I’m trying to figure out what I need to do because I’m not just packing one suitcase.
“I’m the type of player who lives in the moment so when I heard the deal was possibly going through, going through the process and all trending well, in my head it was already ‘I’m leaving, I’m coming to Leeds.’ Then you start thinking ‘is it happening, is it not, what’s going on?’ It was a bit of a head-turner but as soon as I was told ‘you’re flying tomorrow’ — good!”
Orta tracking McKennie since his Schalke days did not mean the US connection at Leeds was not important.
Tyler Adams, a fellow central midfielder McKennie has grown up with internationally and will now link up with domestically, was influential in selling the move and the location. Adams was at Elland Road this evening to welcome McKennie and interview him for the club’s TV station after as he finalised his loan forms. While Juventus are in a spell of trouble, they were Italy’s dominant club for years and McKennie was accustomed to mixing in Champions League circles. Prior interest from non-Champions League sides in England had failed to attract him in the same way.
Jesse Marsch, Leeds’ American head coach, spelt out McKennie’s role in his line-up, and McKennie was given an idea of how Leeds want to evolve down the line, with a takeover by minority shareholder 49ers Enterprises bubbling behind the scenes. The overall vision satisfied him enough to say yes.
Though a permanent move to Leeds for McKennie would technically happen in the summer transfer window, the past month has seen the club commit to £70m ($86.4m) worth of first-team players — beyond what was widely anticipated for January.
Monday also saw them put in place an agreement for Diego Llorente to go on loan to Roma, a switch which is intended to become permanent and could recoup the £18m ($22.2m) paid for a centre-back who has never managed to wholly convince in two and a half seasons in England.
It has been the most active January for years at Elland Road and a break from tradition for a club who, for so long, saw the winter window as a bad time to do business.
In getting McKennie over the line the day before the deadline, they have comprehensively pushed the boat out.
(Top photo: Leeds United Football Club)
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