In a lot of ways, Brenden Aaronson seems like a typical American teenager. He lives at his childhood home, sleeps in a bedroom that hasn't changed much since he was 10 years old, and when he needs some privacy from his parents, he escapes to the basement, where he battles his younger brother in ping pong. Aaronson drives his dad's car to soccer practice and often does some extra training in the backyard when he gets home.
"I keep saying I'm going to sell it to him for a dollar and he can take over the payments," said Rusty Aaronson, Brenden's dad, of the car.
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There's one problem with that proposed transaction: Aaronson, possibly in the very near future, might not need a car. At least not one in North America, which, of course, is why he isn't just another 19-year-old. In his second season as an attacking midfielder for the Philadelphia Union, Aaronson has turned himself into one of the brightest young prospects in Major League Soccer and has generated interest from several clubs across Europe.
"I can say that [the interested European clubs] are not just in one league," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Multiple leagues and multiple clubs in each league. Now you have real competition for a player and that just speaks to the player that Brenden has become. It's something for him to be proud of, for his teammates to be proud of and for the Philadelphia Union to be proud of, too."
Curtin couldn't pin down an exact timeline for when he expects a move to happen, but made it clear he will value every day that he's still got Aaronson on the roster. The two have known each other since Aaronson was an 11-year-old playing in a Union youth program.
"I'm a realist and ultimately it's going to be sooner rather than later," said Curtin, who added that one appealing scenario would be to come to an agreement with a club that would allow Aaronson to see out the season in Philadelphia.
That reality represents a remarkable 18 months for the New Jersey native, who went into the 2019 season just hoping to get some chances as an impact player off the bench. Instead, he started 25 games, played 1,722 minutes, scored three goals and earned a call-up to the senior national team for a pair of CONCACAF Nations League matches in October. He didn't make the matchday roster for either of those, but he did start in the United States' 1-0 win against Costa Rica to cap its annual January camp, playing 65 minutes.
"Those first two games were just an eye-opening experience for me because I got to see Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie... all the big guys were in the camp," Aaronson said. "And then I got my chance to play against Costa Rica, and I thought I played pretty well. I was focused on the task at hand, but there were moments in that game where I was just kinda in shock and I think it really hits you after the game. That's when I was really, really happy."
Aaronson's ascent since making his first-team debut less than 18 months ago has been as fast as it might have been unexpected. Though he has always been both a technically and tactically advanced player for his age, he has also always been behind the curve from a physical development standpoint. After he joined the Union Academy at the U-14 level and started playing up an age group, it was common for bigger, stronger kids to simply grab him and throw him to the ground. For years, the physical gap served as a source of frustration.
"On the rides home [from games], he would say, 'Dad, when am I going to grow? When am I going to grow?'" Rusty Aaronson said. "That was always the question. I would simply say, 'When your time is ready, you will grow.'"
Yet what he lacked in stature, he learned to make up for with his ability to read the game. Aaronson became extremely skilled at playing with the ball in tight spaces, positioning his body and quickly making the right decision. And eventually, he grew. He'll likely never be a physically imposing player, but at 5-foot-10, 154 pounds, his size is no longer the liability it was for most of his life. Even now, Curtin jokes that Aaronson "fails the eyeball tests" because, despite being only 19, his baby face still makes him look younger than he is. It also leads him into a criticism of how players are evaluated in the country.
"In the United States, we have to get past this idea that only the fastest and the strongest and the biggest are the ones that make it in soccer," Curtin said. "Brenden has a lot of physical tools and qualities, but he's not the 200-pound, 6-foot-3, muscle guy. He has to do it by thinking fast. You saw it as a kid that he was really gifted and talented. You knew he was special."
After being capped by USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter, Aaronson played with a whole new level of confidence to begin the season, which included a sensational performance at LAFC on March 8 before the coronavirus pandemic put the 2020 season on hold.
"He covered 13 kilometers against LAFC, which blew everyone else out of the water by over a kilometer-and-a-half in the 90-minute game," Curtain said. "That's like Bundesliga-type output. So he can run forever, and that's a really important thing."
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As the attacking member of the midfield diamond in Curtin's 4-4-2 formation, Aaronson proved not only to be an impactful offensive playmaker, but he disrupted LAFC's rhythm for long stretches by pestering opposing defensive midfielder Eduard Atuesta, one of the league's best players.
"LAFC is the best team in the league and people value Atuesta at about $20 million," Curtin said. "Brenden, I thought, outplayed him in that game and that really kind of cemented in my mind, like, 'OK, yeah, this kid is ready.'"
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the league, and training with the club was either limited or not allowed, Aaronson went back to basics. For him, that meant a lot of family time. His younger brother, Paxten, 16, just signed a homegrown contract with the Union, and the two of them killed hours and hours each day trying to stay sharp and get better.
"It's like a competitive family, I'd say, and what I would do over the break is a lot of one-on-ones with my brother," Brenden said. "Me and him are super competitive with each other. We played in a very tight square, just working on our feet and getting better technically, and then my dad, who's been huge in my success so far, took us through the same training we used to do with kids. Just technical stuff, turning on the ball, just the basics."
Father Rusty, who played college soccer at Monmouth and runs a successful high-level youth club in New Jersey, said he thought the amount of touches both Brenden and Paxten were getting on a daily basis during the shutdown helped them come out better on the other side. Brenden's showing in the MLS is Back Tournament, leading the Union to the semifinals where they lost to Portland, certainly validated that theory as he was among the tournament's standout performers.
"I decided to drop back off of the back line and kind of get the ball between two people. I knew [Graham] Zusi was in front of me and I knew that [Daniel] Salloi was behind me," Aaronson said, when asked about the play a couple weeks later.
"I looked over my shoulder and knew both of them were coming. So as a No. 10, you need to take chances. That's something I've been working on: being more decisive in the final third. I used my body to shift one way and go the other -- that's something I feel like I'm pretty good at -- and I saw Jamiro [Monteiro] running through and saw Sergio behind him. I thought Sergio had the better shot, so I decided to spin it in to him. And we scored."
Though Aaronson plays mostly at a No. 10 for the Union, he sees himself as more of a hybrid between a No. 8 and a 10 -- he calls himself an "eight-and-a-half." He has the profile to play either, but his stamina allows him to cover a lot of ground, giving him value in a box-to-box midfield role, if needed.
For the national team, that positional flexibility is a good fit as Berhalter's preferred system uses either dueling No. 8s or No. 10s at the link between defense and attack. While at this point Aaronson doesn't figure to be a starter for Berhalter, he should factor into U.S. Soccer's plans in some way over the coming year. The USMNT's busy calendar is expected to include World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup and Olympics qualifying and, assuming qualification, the delayed Tokyo Games.
"I think the goal always for young kids is to play with the full national team as soon as you can, but going to the Olympics would be a dream too," Aaronson said. "We just have to wait and see because no one really knows what's going to happen with corona. I think it's just staying patient and when the opportunity comes, it comes."
But before that happens, there's another scenario that, while maybe unlikely, is in the realm of possibility: playing with his brother in a game for the Union.
"It's probably my mom's dream to have us playing together at some point," Brenden said. "That would be huge."