After turning heads at the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida, the buzz around Brenden Aaronson’s potential transfer to Europe was so great fans started to wonder and worry that he might have already played his last game in a Philadelphia Union uniform when they were knocked out in the semifinal.
But even as interest had intensified around the 19-year-old homegrown from Medford, N.J., there was already a desire from both player and club to ensure that such a transfer would wait until January.
“It was for sure a goal of mine going into all the interest that was going on and all that kind of stuff that the angle was to stay here (for the rest of the season),” Aaronson said in a press conference after his pending transfer was announced on Friday. “I feel like I owed this club something because of what they’ve done for me.”
Sporting Director Ernst Tanner said Friday that while the first contact with Red Bull Salzburg, where he worked prior to taking the job with the Union, began about 18 months ago, formal negotiations began in September.
“Negotiations were always under the pre-condition that we could have him until the rest of the year,” Tanner said. “We are playing a fantastic season so far so I didn’t want to endanger this by transferring out players now within the season.”
The plural of players Tanner used in that answer is perhaps telling since Mark McKenzie is also generating interest from abroad and was widely speculated to possibly be headed to Celtic before the transfer window closed earlier this month.
With news still to come on the McKenzie front, Aaronson’s pending transfer to Salzburg in January will shatter both a team and league record for a homegrown American player. The Union will reportedly receive $6 million and an additional $3 million in add-ons, plus a sell-on fee of 10-20%.
A fan since the team started when he was just another kid cheering in the stands at 9 years old, Aaronson’s relationship with the club was a key factor in him choosing to sign a homegrown deal instead of testing the waters in Europe two years ago when he was already garnering interest.
“For Brenden, I think it was important that he didn’t immediately go over to Europe and maybe get lost in the shuffle in the chaos that you can at a young age over there,” head coach Jim Curtin said Friday. “I think it was important for him to get minutes, to get 90 minutes with the Bethlehem Steel at the time, to get minutes with the first team to work his way into the national team program. That pathway is one that it’s not linear. It’s not perfect for everybody. There’s highs and lows along the way but the top players have a way of persevering through the hard moments. They find ways to adapt and improve their game and Brenden is the same way.”
While the connections to Salzburg are apparent through Tanner and through Curtin’s relationship with head coach Jesse Marsch, a former teammate of his at the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA, it was Aaronson’s own preference that may have played the biggest role in him landing in Austria.
There was reported interest from a number of teams in Europe, but just as first proving himself with the Union before heading abroad showed patience, wisdom and humility on he and his family’s part, making the move to a club with a track record of developing players who get sold on to bigger clubs in Europe seems like an extremely wise move for all parties, which includes Brenden, the Union, Red Bull Salzburg and the U.S. men’s national team.
Aaronson said Friday that he has spent a lot of time researching clubs by watching video clips on YouTube and that Salzburg was a club that repeatedly stood out.
“They play out of a four-two-two-two so as I’ve been told I think I’m going to go in and slot as probably one of the 10s they see me at and I think that formation fits me well,” Aaronson said. “The whole dynamic of how they want to play pressing the ball, constantly playing forward, I think that that just fits my style of play. And just the club organization, I think it’s an awesome setup that they have there and I’m really excited to join.”
Before that happens of course, Aaronson has some unfinished business: helping his hometown team chase after both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.
“This is something I’ve wanted for this club for a long time, seeing that we haven’t won a trophy,” Aaronson said. “It’s really in me to win something and I hope that you guys see it every game because I feel like I come out and I want to win something for this club and I want to give my all for the rest of the season in every single game. And I can promise you that because this club means something very special for me.”