It’s been a breakthrough year for Brenden Aaronson. The Philadelphia Union Homegrown led his team to the Supporters’ Shield, their first major hardware in club history, helping earn himself MLS Best XI and MLS is Back Tournament Best XI honors and a multi-million-dollar transfer to RB Salzburg.
He’s slated to jet to Austria to join his new club at the start of January. But before the curtain drops on his distinguished 2020, the 20-year-old will try to punctuate all that progress at club level with a similar step up for his country – a step US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter has publicly urged him to take in the leadup to Wednesday’s friendly vs. El Salvador at Inter Miami CF Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“Gregg's a great coach for me. He challenges me day in and day out,” Aaronson said on Monday when asked about Berhalter’s words. “I want to have a stake in this team, be a part of it for the future. I think that this camp and getting this game against El Salvador was big for me, because I want to show what I can do after the year I’ve had. So I'm just going to go into the game and just try to play my best and help the team win.”
He may be aided in that by Berhalter’s stylistic shift towards a more aggressive pressing approach with similar elements to the up-tempo identity espoused by both Philly and Salzburg.
“I was really impressed with the energy and enthusiasm, and the athleticism and commitment to pressing in [last month’s friendlies] in Europe. And that's a big focus for this camp as well, is high pressing,” noted veteran center back Walker Zimmerman last week.
“We're not sitting in a mid-block as much, we're getting after our opponents to try and create turnovers that lead to scoring chances … it’s a big talking point for us for the game against El Salvador.”
Aaronson’s all-action displays with MLS’s regular-season champs have propelled him into the mainstream of the North American soccer consciousness, though he’s still got a few more levels to climb. He harks back to one of his first senior-squad experiences, a stint with the full USMNT during Concacaf Nations League action vs. Cuba and Canada in October 2019, as a wake-up call in that regard.
“I got to work with Christian [Pulisic], Weston [McKennie], Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris, all these guys that are playing at a top level week in, week out, either in Europe or in MLS. And you see how these guys work,” he said. “I remember after that game I was thinking to myself wow, this was an eye-opener. I want to do whatever I can to be a part of this team week in and week out, and I think that it just made me work even harder because I knew at that point that I can try to make this team.”
There’s a relatively small elite of top players for whom “club and country” is an ongoing juggling act, and Aaronson wants in.
“It's just awesome being part of two teams because at one team, you're learning other stuff, at the other team you’re learning other things and it kind of comes together. It works really well,” he said on Monday. “I think that I’ve taken big steps this year and I'm really happy with myself.”
To do so, he’ll have to carve out a place in a key area of the pitch, amid a renaissance of young American talent on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I've been in for a few camps now, so I'm finding my role in the team and I think that the role I'll probably be playing, hopefully in the future and in this camp, is one of the two attacking center mids,” he said. “I really enjoy find that position because I can get forward and I can defend. I feel like I can do both.
“And for the core group of young guys, you can see them and they're doing fantastic in Europe, even in MLS you see all these young guys coming up now. It's awesome to be – hopefully be – a part of that group and I want to be part of that for the future. My goal is to hopefully get to the World Cup and be a part of that kind of thing, but I'm just taking it day by day and working hard day by day to just hopefully cement my place in the squad.”