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South Jersey high school buzzing over former student’s MLS debut

Brenden Aaronson is the third player with ties to Shawnee High School to play in MLS and one of a half dozen academy players who would’ve played for the school in a different era

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Brenden Aaronson received so many text messages after scoring in his MLS debut on Sunday in Atlanta, he said it took about three hours to respond to all of them.

Several of those messages came from friends he’s kept in touch with from back home in Medford, N.J., friends he met playing soccer at Medford Soccer Club, Real Jersey FC or at the local schools he attended before transferring to YSC Academy as a sophomore.

“That was the only thing anyone was talking about,” said Brian Lorenz, a senior at Shawnee High School who captained the soccer team last fall. “It’s unbelievable to think that he could be playing for a high school team right now and he’s just that much ahead of everyone he was with, playing pro, starting against one of the best teams in the league and scoring a goal.”

Lorenz started playing with Brenden when they were six and said that even then he was on a different level than his peers.

“When other kids were just kicking the ball around and trying to dribble, Brenden was making all the right runs and finding himself in space,” Lorenz said. “He was so skilled and such a smart player.”

Lorenz went on to play with Brenden at Real Jersey FC and they were classmates as freshman at Shawnee before Brenden and another friend of theirs, JD Wagner, both transferred to YSC Academy, where they could take advantage of the training schedule built into their school day. Wagner, who is heading to the Naval Academy after graduation, is one of five players competing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy who reside in the Shawnee portion of the regional high school district.

Shawnee seniors Donovan Wu, a former Union Academy defender who is now playing for the New York Red Bulls U19 team, and Gavin Euksuzian, a midfielder for FC Delco, are both in the DA along with Aaronson and Wagner’s younger brothers, Paxten Aaronson and Zach Wagner, who are teammates on the Union U17 team. The DA restricts players from competing in high school soccer.

“We’ve lost a lot of top talent but it’s one of those things where we want what’s best for the kids in the long run,” said Ryan Franks, an alum who teaches and coaches the boys soccer team at Shawnee. “It’s a shame they can’t experience both the academy and high school but at the same time it’s really cool to see what a player like Brenden has been able to accomplish. I guess I’m going to have to go get a Brenden Aaronson jersey.”

Franks, who comes from a family of soccer players, is well versed in the history of the school’s impact on the game both at the college and professional level.

DC United v Houston Dynamo
Medford, N.J. native Stephen King led Shawnee High School to two state championships and played five seasons in MLS for the Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders and D.C. United
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

His younger brother Jamie Franks, who starred at Wake Forest and played professionally in the USL, is considered one of the top college coaches in the country at the University of Denver. New York Red Bulls (MetroStars) original Jeff Zaun and Stephen King, who last played in 2012 with D.C. United, both played at the school and went on to play in MLS. Brian Clarhaut, who is the head coach at Nyköpings BIS in the Swedish first division, played at Shawnee for a season after transferring from Bishop Eustace his senior year in 2003. Countless others have gone on to play at a high level in college.

Among South Jersey boys programs, only Delran and Haddonfield have won more state titles than the seven Shawnee teams have won.

“Shawnee had a lot of success through those years when soccer was really just starting to come around across the country” said Franks, who played at Gettysburg. “I was 10 years old during the World Cup in the U.S. and for me going to see guys at Shawnee was really cool.”

As the sport has grown in the U.S., the development model has shifted from the club and high school to college model to an academy environment dedicated to getting elite players into a professional environment much earlier. For the Union, the shift locally began when the first full-time academy teams joined the DA in 2013. Prior to that guys like Keegan Rosenberry and Zack Steffen played in high school and their local clubs while training and playing in competitions with the Union. Of the current homegrowns, only goalkeeper Matthew Freese played multiple seasons in high school as a four-year starter at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square.

“When Brenden was still in the school he was training eight to nine times a week,” said Tommy Wilson, the Union’s academy director. “I think that’s a critical piece.”

Since players are recruited to the Union’s program from all over the Delaware Valley and across the country from areas where a current MLS academy isn’t operating, the impact isn’t immediately noticeable on most high school programs.

Shawnee is a clear exception to that.

“We do sometimes kind of talk about ‘what if’ we had some of these guys when we’re losing to Washington Township or whoever it might be in a given year,” Franks said. “At the same time there’s an appreciation for what those guys are doing too, especially the ones on the high school team who grew up with them and played at Real.”

Photo Gallery: GA Cup East Regionals
Brenden Aaronson in a GA Cup qualifier at Power Training Complex in October 2016
Matt Ralph

Though it’s based in Medford, Real Jersey’s footprint extends beyond the community of 23,000 people a half hour from Center City. In addition to the Aaronsons and the Wagners, Union Academy and Bethlehem Steel FC goalkeeper Tomas Romero, who is from Cherry Hill and U19 forward MD Myers from Delran, also spent time with the club as well as a crop of players in the Union’s younger age groups.

The track record the club has had with its quality over quantity model has continued with the 2004 boys team, which was a win away from bringing home a U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship last summer and recently qualified for a return trip to nationals by winning their group in the National League.

As the first Union homegrown from South Jersey, Aaronson now has his photo featured prominently on the Real Jersey website but his connection to the club, where his dad Rusty Aaronson serves as the president, is still strong. Just last week, after not getting into the game in Kansas City, he went out to the local field with his dad to do some work on finishing.

For anyone passing by, it would have been a familiar sight of a now 18-year-old who has spent seemingly endless hours putting in extra work on local fields and in his basement at home in between commutes to Pennsylvania for school, training and games.

With his MLS career now officially launched with considerable fanfare — hundreds of text messages and social media posts answered and dozens of media interviews completed — Aaronson will look to lead the Union attack again today in front of a much friendlier crowd at Talen Energy Stadium.

In the stands will be a number of former teammates and friends he grew up with in Medford ready to cheer him on not only because of his talent and how far he’s come, but also because he’s someone they like and respect as a peer.

“He’s one of the most humble guys I’ve known, especially with how good he is,” Lorenz said. “Everyone is genuinely really happy for him.”