The ghosts of games past and future are hovering around Brenden Aaronson this week, although not in a sinister sort of way. He’s not haunted. Rather, the 20-year-old is in transition. He’s in limbo between MLS and Europe, in mourning for the title that got away and eagerly anticipating the challenges and excitement to come. Through it all, he has to focus on the critical here and now—a U.S. national team camp at which much is expected of him, despite the potential distractions.
Aaronson is a new senior national team player. His single appearance with the side came 10 months ago in the low-stakes friendly that concluded January camp. And he’s one of many gathered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., ahead of Wednesday’s year-ending exhibition against El Salvador—among the 24 men in camp, 17 have one or no caps to their name. That’s not too far out of the ordinary during this new national team era. Coach Gregg Berhalter has turned the page to a new generation of players, most of whom have something in common with Aaronson.
There was a difference, however, when Berhalter talked about Aaronson last week. There was no discussion about getting Aaronson acclimated to the national team environment, getting him accustomed to the speed of play, or teaching him about what’s expected when you represent your country. In his second full season with his hometown Philadelphia Union, Aaronson tallied four goals and seven assists, played a huge role in the club’s Supporters’ Shield win and was named to the league’s Best XI. That performance helped secure a record-setting transfer of an American MLS homegrown player, a $6 million (plus around $3 million in potential add-ons) move to Red Bull Salzburg that’ll take effect next month. Berhalter is demanding that veteran version of Aaronson, not someone who’s still trying to find his way.
“We’re excited to see Brenden take the next step in his career. I think he’s done a great job this year of performing,” Berhalter said. “When I think back to January until now—you know in January we first had him and he made his national team debut, to now—he’s had a fantastic season of improving his performance almost weekly. So I think he’s done a great job. What we’re looking for from him now is to validate it—validate it on the field. It’s a good opponent we play, against El Salvador. It’s going to be a tight game and this is where he should be able to be very effective. We’re really looking forward to him capping off a strong season with a good performance against El Salvador.”
Asked what he thought about that piece of public pressure from his coach, Aaronson responded like a veteran.
“I find a way of appreciating that because he wants what’s best for me. … I’m not going to take it the wrong way. I want to, like he said, validate my part in the team and do whatever I can,” Aaronson told Sports Illustrated. “He’s a coach that wants to push me and I think that’s what coaches do. When he sees a good player, I think that’s what you do as a coach—you want to try and push them to be at their best ability. And I think that for me, I think that’s what I'm going to try to do going into the game.”
The stakes and expectations have been rising steadily for Aaronson over the past several seasons. He’s been a member of the Union academy for half his life, and by 2017 he was playing as an amateur for the Union’s second-tier pro team, Bethlehem Steel. A playmaker with excellent vision, technique and range, Aaronson has a mature feel for the game, and a goal in his MLS debut last year proved to be a sign of things to come. He was fantastic at this season’s MLS is Back Tournament, and buzz about a move to Europe increased. In October, as the Union surged toward first place, the deal with Salzburg was announced.
MLS occupies a unique place on the U.S. sports landscape because it’s not an apex predator, final-destination league. That can be a tough thing for its clubs to negotiate, as local fans, sponsors and media thirst for titles while the reality of the global marketplace may set different priorities. As demanding as Philly fans can be, Aaronson insisted the Union’s mission is clear to everyone. His transfer to Salzburg is a win. If he could help deliver a trophy or two in his final few months with the Union, that would be a historic and gratifying bonus.
“I really haven’t answered many questions about that just because the full philosophy of the Union is develop players, sell them—develop players, sell them. And that’s what they do in Europe too, so I think it’s just kind of the way soccer is,” he said. “I’ve gotten a ton of messages from fans congratulating me and being happy for me. Yeah, there have been a few that have been like, ‘Oh, we should keep him’ and all this kind of stuff. But I think that for me, it was mostly people congratulating me, and I think that’s something that the fans have really bought into and now they’re just waiting for another person to step up.”
There was no happy ending, however. MLS’s regrettable habit of sticking it to its top seeds continued this fall, as the Union sat idle for more than two weeks while the eighth-seeded New England Revolution found their form in a preliminary round playoff game. The visiting Revs then shut out the Union, 2–0, in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Shield winners were out, and Aaronson and teammate Mark McKenzie, another Best XI selection, suddenly had free time on their schedule. A national team call-up was the attractive consolation prize.
Aaronson said they’ve talked about the loss, and he referenced the irony of the Union’s 4-1-1 record this season against New England. He said the defeat still hurts. But there’s no time or space to mourn, because the USA has a big year ahead. World Cup qualifying begins next September and before that, there’s a Concacaf Gold Cup, the inaugural Nations League finals and the Olympics, a U-23 competition for which Aaronson is eligible. Berhalter and his staff essentially have to build three teams to compete in 2021.
“We haven’t really focused that far into the future,” Aaronson said. “It’s more about this [El Salvador] game coming up, and he’s been talking to me about Salzburg and just going in there with an open mind, ready to learn, going there not thinking, ‘Oh wow, I gotta play, I gotta play.’ Just take it patiently. Go in there, do whatever you can to get into the team, do whatever you can to help the team, and that’s really what we’ve been talking about.”
Aaronson’s job is to balance his exit from Philadelphia, his mastery of Berhalter’s style of play (playing as one of the two advanced midfielders in Berhalter’s 4-3-3 is different from Aaronson’s more roaming role with the Union) and his preparation for Salzburg, all at the same time. Thankfully, he’s accustomed to multitasking. During the successful MLS regular season run, he was already getting ready for the move to Austria. It’ll be his first time living away from home. He’s found a place, and he’s been learning to cook and taking German lessons. His transition will be expedited by his relationship with Red Bull’s American coach, Jesse Marsch, and by the club’s renowned comfort with developing younger players. He departs on New Year’s Day.
“I’ve been watching the team, getting to know how the team works, knowing all the players names—doing whatever I can to just get acclimated with the coaches and know their names—the GM, Jesse, the assistant coaches, all that kind of stuff,” Aaronson said. “My dream has been to go to Europe my entire life, and that’s something that I’ve been working for my entire life and it’s just something that I’m really proud of myself for.”
The move to Salzburg also comes with the chance to join up with the USA’s celebrated European cohort, which already features at least nine Champions League players. That seemed about as attractive to Aaronson as the new club. He watched excitedly last month as Berhalter gathered the likes of Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest, Giovanni Reyna, Tyler Adams and others for a camp and games against Wales and Panama, and he saw a style of play to which he’s eager to contribute. The excitement surrounding that group’s potential was palpable, even to a fellow player.
“I saw the team and I said, ‘Wow, this is a fantastic team of really, really good young players.’ It was very fun to watch. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. I was looking forward to seeing Gio play, this [Yunus] Musah kid, the kids coming off the bench. In a short amount of time they kind of merged together and played two great games,” he said.
“Credit to Gregg, because he only had those guys for three days before they played that [first] game, which is really unreal to have already that way of playing,” Aaronson continued. “You saw it. They want to play soccer and at that camp, they had unbelievable soccer players. I mean, you have Sergiño Dest at left back. That’s probably the most technical left back I’ve ever seen. And you have all these guys in there that are very technical, and they’re so good on the ball and you could really see that.”
Aaronson will miss out on the upcoming January camp as a result of the transfer, so the next potential senior call-up will be for a couple friendlies in late March. By then, Berhalter and U-23 coach Jason Kreis should have an idea of how the Gold Cup/Nations League/Olympic rosters will take shape. Aaronson is aiming for the top.
“I think it would be amazing to get into that European camp,” he said. “Just seeing the group and how they function on the field, I think they’re the same way as the MLS guys—everybody is super welcoming. You have unbelievably talented players that I want to play with. You want to play at the highest level, and you want to play with the best players. So that’s definitely something I want to do.”
Excelling this week will be a critical step, especially following Berhalter’s public challenge. The possibility of playing in the Champions League would boost Aaronson’s national team prospects as well. Salzburg’s fate in the competition will be determined Wednesday—the same day as the El Salvador match—as it hosts Spanish power Atlético Madrid in the group stage finale. A win would vault Red Bull into next year’s round-of-16.
It represents yet another possibility Aaronson will be pondering during this challenging and exciting stretch.
“I think this next game is something that would be huge for the city of Salzburg and just the club to make it to the next round. Knocking Atlético out would be huge and I’m just really excited to watch the game,” he said. “I’m not really nervous. I think it’s just excitement because being able to play in the Champions League has always been a dream of mine. It’s something I really want to do. If that could come true the first season I get there, that would be amazing.”
He’s not sure if he’ll be able to devote his full attention to it while getting ready for El Salvador.
“But I’ll for sure have my phone out,” he said.