Minnesota United winger Justin McMaster said Mark McKenzie doesn’t provide much competition when the former Wake Forest teammates play “Call of Duty.”
Asked who comes out ahead in the video game, McMaster didn’t hesitate. “Me, for sure,” he replied.
But where McKenzie does have an experienced upper hand is on the soccer field. After leaving the ACC school in 2017, McKenzie debuted and then starred for the Philadelphia Union. He rose to the U.S. men’s national team and was sold to Belgium club Genk for a reported $6 million, the highest transfer fee ever for an MLS center back.
Unlike McKenzie’s linear rise, McMaster has had a choppier journey. After McMaster was drafted by the Loons in January, McKenzie shared advice on playing in the league.
“Mark is one of my really close friends,” McMaster said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “I still talk to Mark almost every day. I play video games with Mark. I talk to him about MLS as well.”
The tips were: “Don’t let the speed of play or level of play shock you too much,” McMaster relayed. “He’s just saying, ‘Focus on small details and being clean on the ball, not complicating the game … and be yourself.”
McMaster has proven to be a quick study in his first two substitute appearances in the Loons’ first two games. With current winger options limited on United’s roster, McMaster has played 35 minutes and registered his first MLS assist on Robin Lod’s goal in the 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake last Saturday.
Of the 27 first-round picks in the MLS draft in January, only six have played in games so far this season, and McMaster is the only one to put his name on the scoresheet.
McMaster and Minnesota (0-2) face expansion club Austin FC at 7 p.m. Saturday at Allianz Field. Verde’s top pick, midfielder Daniel Pereira, leads MLS rookies with 180 minutes played.
McMaster’s assist last week came with his Jamaican grandmother and aunt in the stands in St. Paul. They had flown in from their home in Atlanta to see him play.
“They said when the goal went in, they were really hyped,” McMaster relayed. “They were standing up and cheering and screaming.”
Last Sunday morning, they went out for breakfast and were able to enjoy what McMaster, 21, has overcome in his young career.
McMaster was born in Atlanta and spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. “It was hard to play and find fields that were suitable enough for you to play your best,” he said. “It helped me to grow as a player because when I was around 13 years old, I was playing with older guys, (some) 18-year-olds. It helped me build aggression and things like that.”
McMaster represented Jamaica on youth national teams, but left the Caribbean country at age 15 to join the Philadelphia Union youth academy in 2015. He was homesick, but adjusted to the level of play in the U.S. developmental academy. He felt he was improving physically, technically and tactically.
“It was always my dream to sign professionally, so going to an academy and just trying to prove myself and show that I have the potential to be a first-team player,” McMaster said. “Once it became closer to the end of the season, I had a talk with the people at Union. They basically told me they weren’t going to sign me and the best thing for me to do was to go to college.”
McMaster became part of stacked Demon Deacon recruiting class in 2017, which included McKenzie, Machop Chol (Atlanta United), Omir Fernandez (New York Red Bulls), Brandon Servania (FC Dallas and on loan in Austria) and Andrew Pannenberg (Colorado Springs Switchbacks).
Once McMaster acclimated, Wake Forest coach Bobby Muuss played him out wide as a winger in 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations, mostly on the right side. In the ACC championship versus Virginia, Muuss recalled how McMaster consistently got in behind the Cavaliers defense and had a couple of dangerous shots.
“I think that was a turning point for Justin where he showed everybody in the ACC … that he was going to be a player to be reckoned with for the future,” Muuss said.
During that season, Muuss put his arm around McMaster and told him that if he believed in himself, he could win the Hermann Trophy, the award given to the nation’s best college soccer players (male and female).
“That meant a lot hearing somebody tell me that,” McMaster said. “He has been in the college soccer environment and he worked with a lot of good players.”
McMaster was also using the Union passing on him for fuel. “(It) pushed me to do my best in college,” he said. “And I know that if I really applied myself in college, I knew this day would come when I would play in MLS.”
McMaster was involved in many big goals for Wake in 2018 and had a roaring start to 2019. “He was playing his best football and then that’s where he picked up his knee injury,” Muuss said.
McMaster went in to tackle a Virginia wingback in the ACC tournament semifinal in November 2019 when his right leg planted wrong and he heard a pop.
“It was like my heart dropped,” McMaster recalled. “It was a scary moment, just a tough moment, just really painful.”
McMaster struggled with being sidelined during Wake’s run to the NCAA tournament semifinals.
“Just not being able to do what you love and just going to rehab and doing school work and going back to your room, it feels like every day is kind of meaningless at times,” McMaster said. “But I look back on it now and just enduring those moments, I think those things just define your character, and being able to get though things like that and push yourself, it kind of shows you who you are as a person.”
That injury is a big reason McMaster dropped in the 2021 draft and was still available when the Loons were on the clock with the 17th pick. Manager Adrian Heath said after the selection, “We firmly believe if he hadn’t had his injury, there was no way he would have been available to us.”
Muuss was impressed with how McMaster had returned from Jamaica to the North Carolina school in June 2020 to rehab. In the lead-up to the draft, Muuss spoke to Heath and Loons director of player personnel Amos Magee.
“They did their research and their homework; I was on the phone with them for a long time prior,” Muuss said. For McMaster “to get in the (20-man game-day roster) and on the field this early in his career, Minnesota knew exactly what they were getting, or what they thought they were getting. I do think this draft would have been totally different if Justin McMaster was heathy in the fall.”
McMaster, who had three goals in four preseason friendlies for the Loons, said he doesn’t concern himself with what-ifs.
“The team has welcomed me and I’ve been really happy on the field and just enjoying,” McMaster said. “It’s been a tough two years for me and now I finally feel like I’m in a place where I’m really happy just playing.”