Brenden Aaronson and Michael Pellegrino are both only 16, but they have a lot of history on the soccer field both as rivals in New Jersey youth soccer and as teammates with the Philadelphia Union Academy for the past four years.
That the two South Jersey natives would make their first professional starts together in the same midfield for Bethlehem Steel in Tampa Bay on Saturday night was only fitting.
“It was just an awesome experience,” said Aaronson, of Medford, who made his third appearance for the Steel in front of 6,611 fans at Al Lang Stadium. “That’s the most people I’ve ever played in front of.”
Pellegrino joined Aaronson in the midfield for the first time in a Steel jersey and both saw the game through to the end, despite the challenge of playing against an older, star-studded team with players like former England international Joe Cole (age 35), former Northern Ireland international Martin Paterson (age 30) and former German international Marcel Schäfer (age 33). The game ended in a 1-1 draw for a crucial road point for a Steel team needing every point it can get to make the playoffs.
“I was a little nervous going in but players had my back, coaches were confident in me and that kind of gave me confidence too to go in against a team like Tampa Bay,” said Pellegrino, of Wenonah. “It was difficult, but it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it.”
Steel head coach Brendan Burke described both players as fearless in their approach to the match.
“Brenden’s passing percentage was up over 90 percent, Michael’s was in the mid-80s which is just phenomenal for players their age making their first professional start and in a big environment,” Burke said. “For those guys to step in and play the way they did I think tells us a lot about their character and their mentality.”
It also sheds light on the pathway the Philadelphia Union now have fully established through the various age groups in the academy up through to Steel and the first team.
It’s a pathway Aaronson and Pellegrino have progressed together after playing for rival youth clubs in South Jersey; Aaronson for Real Jersey FC and Pellegrino for South Jersey Elite Barons.
“For a while Brenden was their midfielder and I was our midfielder so I didn’t like Brenden for a while,” Pellegrino quipped. “But we met up in the U14 year and we’ve been together ever since.”
Pellegrino lined up next to veteran James Chambers in front of the back line while Aaronson played as an attacking midfielder, nearly setting up a goal in the first half with a perfectly weighted ball served into the box.
“We both kind of played simple, we weren’t trying to do too much, one-two touch just get it off your foot,” Aaronson said.
As exhilarating as the experience was for both players - and their academy teammates watching on a long bus ride back from games in upstate New York - the high school juniors both recognize there is still plenty of work to be done.
While Aaronson will continue with Steel and is available for selection for a Friday night game at Toronto FC II, Pellegrino will join up with the U17s for three regional qualifiers for the Generation adidas Cup being played at the Power Training Complex in Chester.
“Coming back from Steel I still need to stay humble, stay focused,” Pellegrino said.