SAN PEDRO SULA – Weston McKennie could be welcomed back to the U.S. national team in the future, coach Gregg Berhalter said after banishing him from a pair of World Cup qualifiers for violating team COVID-19 protocols.
“The team absolutely comes first, knowing we made a decision not only for the short term, but to the long-term health of the program, and it’s not an easy decision,” Berhalter said Tuesday, a day before the Americans play Honduras. “Trust me, countless coaches are faced with decisions where they have to take talented players out of the lineup for some reason or other. But we did it for what we think is the good of the group and good of the team.”
ESPN reported McKennie spent a night outside the team's COVID-19 hotel bubble in Nashville, Tennessee, and also brought an unauthorized person to the hotel on a different evening, the latter also reported by TUDN. Berhalter declined to detail the violations.
“It doesn't rule him out for the future,” Berhalter said.
McKennie, among the top American players, started last week's 0-0 draw at El Salvador. He did not dress for Sunday's 1-1 tie against Canada in Nashville, then was told Monday to return home.
“People make mistakes. Weston apologized to the group. He apologized to me, and things happen,” Berhalter said. “I guess the most important message that we’re getting through, that we’re trying to get through, is that we're here in camp for seven days and know the intensity is incredible. It’s three finals in seven days, and we need everyone's single-minded focus on what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Berhalter has what he referred to an “open-door” policy, although in the past that has referred to players falling in an out of form and returning from injury.
“Me and Weston had long conversations and he’s a guy that I care for deeply," Berhalter said. "He’s a big part of the team. And I’m sure when he’s performing well, he'll be back in the team.”
Goalkeeper Matt Turner said McKennie addressed the team as a group.
"He was able to say what he needed to say to us," Turner said. “There needs to be a precedent set at some point when it comes to this virus. It’s about the bigger picture. There’s rules in place and I think it’s definitely a wakeup call in general, just not only for us as a soccer team, but for the population, that this this virus is still out there, it’s rampant and you need to take it seriously.”
McKennie apologized in a statement Sunday. The U.S. Soccer Federation did not make him available to media.
McKennie’s agent, former U.S. player Cory Gibbs, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
A 23-year-old from Fort Lewis, Washington, McKennie missed Juventus’ derby against Torino in April after violating COVID-19 protocols in Italy. He has seven goals in 25 international appearances.
Midfielder Brenden Aaronson said the team's attention was on the match against Honduras.
“I think we’ve moved on," he said. "Yeah, he made a mistake, but everybody makes mistakes, and he’s going to learn from it, and he’ll come back from it.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports