When you talk to Brenden Aaronson or see him interact with his peers off the field, he’s a polite 18-year-old who doesn’t necessarily stand out in a group because of his size, how he carries himself or talks about his budding soccer career.
On the field is a different story for the Medford, N.J. native, who on Tuesday joined the Philadelphia Union in full training for the first time since being added to the first team roster at the beginning of the year.
“There’s a little bit of nerves when you come in but when I got out there I was fine, just tried to play to my strengths,” Aaronson said about his first day.
Aaronson was a regular in first team training last season, but his only game opportunities after turning pro in September came in USL with the Bethlehem Steel FC, where the attacking midfielder made a name for himself both with the Union technical staff and around the league.
“The Steel season helped a lot, getting that pro time really helps you, makes you think faster,” Aaronson said.
The former Real Jersey FC standout who joined the Union academy full-time in 2014 had the distinction of being the first player on an amateur academy deal to be named to the USL Team of the Week with Steel FC and finished the season with a goal and five assists in 18 matches.
His successful run with Steel FC — after missing several weeks after breaking his collarbone in a game — capped a remarkable 2018 for Aaronson. It started in February when he scored a goal in a scrimmage against the New York Red Bulls and a few weeks later turned up in the “Doop Hoops” jersey reveal video, along with younger brother Paxten Aaronson.
“Last year was a breakthrough, but I still felt like I was slow on the ball because the pro level is just so much higher so when I got Steel games it was easier for me to play, dictate the tempo,” Aaronson said.
With roster spots still to feel — No. 10 Borek Dockal’s the most glaring — it’s hard to say where Aaronson will fit in with the team’s plans in his first full season as a pro (since he played for Steel after signing a pro deal, he won’t be considered a rookie by MLS standards). But head coach Jim Curtin’s comments on Tuesday foreshadow that the opportunities for minutes will be there.
“I’m happy to see now Brenden Aaronson today step out there and look like a No. 10, an MLS number 10,” Curtin told reporters after training on Tuesday.
Curtin was unequivocal in his praise and unapologetic for the high expectations he’s set for Aaronson, who like a lot of the homegrowns on the Union roster he first met in the early days of the club when he was an academy coach.
“He has the ability to turn, to play a final pass, has the work rate to cover ground and run and break up plays as well,” Curtin said. “We’ll give him the keys so to speak at certain moments in the preseason and see how he handles that. He still has a long way to go, but at the same time for a position we as a country have predominantly failed to produce, he’s one of the close ones.”
For Aaronson, who passed on a scholarship to Indiana University to turn pro and graduates from YSC Academy in June, the focus right now is on preseason and continuing to do what he’s done so well over the past year with the first team in preseason, the Union U19s and Steel FC: making the most of his opportunities.
“I just want to get as much time as I can and try to make an impact and be a team player,” Aaronson said.
Being a team player is what has made Aaronson popular not just with coaches but his teammates during his time going through the Union development pipeline. During a run of games back with the U19s after the Steel season ended last fall that included a game against the New York Red Bulls at Talen Energy Stadium, he looked like any another 18-year-old joking around with his friends before the game.
“It was great seeing them and getting to play with them again because it’s our last year together,” Aaronson said of his time back with the U19s. “I don’t try to act like there is anything different. We’re all still part of the same team.”
Aaronson has likely played his last game with the U19s, but the approach hasn’t changed a bit.