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The inside story of Brenden Aaronson: From USA to Europe

The twenty-year old has made the switch to Europe’s most exciting young team and is set to fight Christian Pulisic for his position in the USMNT.

Once ridiculed as the “retirement home” for Europe’s most distinguished stars, Major League Soccer is fast becoming a breeding ground for a crop of electrifying young talent. And New Jersey-born star Brenden Aaronson is one of the latest of this crop to make the European switch.

The past two years has seen Reggie Cannon, Mark McKenzie and a handful of the USMNT’s future stars move across the Atlantic. In January 2021, Aaronson left Philadelphia Union to join the prestigious Red Bull Salzburg project. But did the attacking midfielder always show the promise he does now?

First Time Finish spoke to ex-United States U18 and U20 coach Omid Namazi about Aaronson’s teenage years.

Early years

‘Brenden’s family reside in my area, they’re in Medford, New Jersey. I met the family when Brenden was 13 or 14 years old. His father asked if I’d be interested in training Brenden and his younger brother, Paxten. We did some small group training sessions.’ Namazi said.

The current Houston Dynamo assistant was unsure of Brenden Aaronson’s physical capabilities during his adolescence. But has been pleased to see him come on leaps and bounds.

‘I also ran a week-long camp for a team Brenden was playing for when he was about 16. The club was Real New Jersey and were run by Brenden’s father.’

Sussing out

‘My impressions from day one were that he was special. He was extremely technical. At that point, physically, I wasn’t sure whether he was going to make it to the top level. He was quite small and frail. But he’s grown into a decent size and developed good speed along with his play. He has the potential to become a top-level player.’

The youngster began playing first-team football for Bethlehem Steel, Philadelphia Union’s affiliate club in the USL Championship. Injuries to first-team MLS stars saw Brenden Aaronson gain an opportunity a year later which he grasped with both hands.

Making his name

In October 2018, Brenden Aaronson was initially announced as a first-team player for Philadelphia Union. However, to begin with, he was deemed as a backup to seasoned veterans such as Alejandro Bedoya, Ilsinho and Marco Fabian.

In the end it was injuries which saw the teen required to step up and test his mettle.

In March 2019, whilst making his full debut Aaronson coolly slotted past ex-Aston Villa stopper Brad Guzan in an MLS tie against Atlanta United in front of over 40,000 spectators to announce himself on the professional scene.

From that point on, Brenden Aaronson established himself in the No. 10 role at the tip of Jim Curtin’s 4-4-2 diamond.

The Union boss, after Aaronson’s debut, told MlsSoccer.com: ‘The goal that he scored aside, I thought he was really solid, he found good pockets and turned. I couldn’t be prouder of him and with the work our academy’s done developing him.’

‘He is kind of a modern-day No.10 in that he’ll run on defense, too and press the ball and create turnovers. He’s willing to do the dirty running.’

He finished in second place for MLS Rookie Of The Year in 2019 – the youngest candidate nominated. His solid passing, goalscoring ability and hard-working nature saw him hotly-tipped to succeed further in 2020.

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Brotherly competition

After a stellar first season, coronavirus hit the United States and put a dampener on Aaronson’s development. But the creative midfielder used his time wisely, training with his younger brother, Paxten.

‘It was a long, tough period of time because you’re not around your teammates, you’re not playing every day like you’re used to during the season,’ he told MlsSoccer.com.

Paxten, 17, has signed his pro contract for the Union this season – two years on from his older brother’s introduction to MLS football. And Omid Namazi, who has coached them both, thinks Paxten is the real deal too.

‘Brenden was really focused and had a passion for the game. Paxten was ahead and always pushed Brenden. They trained together and that helped Brenden get better and better and I see Paxten making his way abroad too. That brotherly competition helped him get better,’ Namazi told FTF.

If Namazi is to be believed in the next few seasons there might be yet another Aaronson to keep an eye on.

The international stage

After great success at club and youth international level, Brenden Aaronson was handed his first call-up for the USMNT in January 2020.

The midfielder’s impact was immediate. Aaronson scored in his second game, a 6-0 friendly demolition of El Salvador in December 2020. He ran, unmarked, into the box from deep and received a pass from Lletget on the left and tapped it home via a deflection.

This came days after USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter had challenged Aaronson to ‘validate his progress’. ‘He’s had a fantastic season, improving almost weekly,’ he told ESPN.

Therefore, it appears the starlet is already validating that progress.

The European dream

In October 2020 Brenden Aaronson’s move to Red Bull Salzburg was made official. He would join the club in January. Even prior to his USMNT breakthrough, the star attracted the attention of one of Europe’s most innovative outfits.

Omid Namazi had faith in Aaronson from the get-go and wasn’t shocked at this switch.

Namazi told FTF: ‘I don’t think his move was such a big surprise. He earned it and he’d stood out as one of the better players in the attacking positions in MLS. His progression was very fast and I was surprised at that. I thought his move to Europe was very timely and I think he’s going to flourish. He’s got a higher ceiling than where he’s at now.’

Aaronson got off to a flying start in Austria. Playing a wider role, the American notched a goal and an assist in a friendly win over Steyr.

Salzburg boss Jesse Marsch, told FTF exclusively : ‘Brenden understands our football better each day, each match. He is quick, aggressive and understands our philosophy. He has a great mentality. That means he has all the things we like from a player. We are so excited to have him at FC Red Bull Salzburg.’

Brenden Aaronson currently has two goals and two assists in 543 minutes in the Austrian Bundesliga. He also featured twice in the Europa League. However, Marsch’s side were knocked out at the Round of 32. He posted an impressive 87% pass accuracy across his Europa League outings.

Aaronson has taken to his new wider roles well despite being touted as a central attacking midfielder in the States.

He has been popping up all over the final third. In the 4-1 drubbing of Rapid Wien in February, his fluidity proved essential in Salzburg’s offence.

Future plans

Brenden Aaronson’s ability to play wide and centrally can only be positive.

Pulisic, Musah, Morris, Reyna and Weah are among the players fighting for similar positions in the USMNT. Does Aaronson have what it takes to burst into starting line-ups?

‘There’s a lot of competition for his position but I feel as though he has a good chance to be a regular. If not, he’ll always be considered. It’s a matter of who’s in form and at what time,’ former USMNT U18 coach Omid Namazi told FTF.

At club level, Salzburg face LASK Linz in the ÖFB Cup Final in May. But Namazi believes he can reach Europe’s top five leagues if he keeps his head straight.

‘He has to keep progressing as a player and get better in areas he must be weak still. He has to adapt and get stronger physically. A league like the Bundesliga is definitely attainable for him. From there, I see other possibilities as well. But moving from Austria to the Bundesliga? That is something I can see happening even in the next couple of years.’

The next few years will be pivotal in Brenden Aaronson’s legacy. His positional versatility and industrious nature will surely aid his progress.

His switch to Austria has been fruitful so far.

What will his future hold?

Will he trod the same path to the Bundesliga like so many of his compatriots? Or will fate take him elsewhere?

We shall have to wait and see.

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