National Writer: Charles Boehm

Brenden Aaronson: USMNT gives outlet after Leeds United relegation

B Aaronson camp overlay

Brenden Aaronson was more than happy to talk about golf on Tuesday afternoon as he and his US men’s national team colleague Antonee “Jedi” Robinson took part in a media availability from the USMNT’s camp in Las Vegas, where they meet Mexico in a Concacaf Nations League semifinal Thursday night (10 pm ET | Paramount+, Univision).

Who are the best golfers on the team? Christian Pulisic and Walker Zimmerman, Aaronson reckoned, with Robinson’s assent, the duo launching into a surprisingly detailed comparison of their teammates’ skill sets. How did newcomer Folarin Balogun do in his first-ever experience on the links this week?

“It's an uncomfortable situation, swinging a golf club for the first time,” noted the Philadelphia Union academy product of the USMNT’s much-hyped attacking recruit. “But it goes to show you that he's comfortable with the group, he feels like he's a part of it already.”

Aaronson’s brutally challenging Premier League relegation campaign with Leeds United and the subsequent uncertainty it’s created around his future? He had a whole lot less to say about that undoubtedly difficult topic.

“I'm sorry, but I'm just with the national team, so I just want to focus on the national team,” he said when asked if he wants or expects to leave LUFC this summer. “That's where all my thoughts are right now, and that's the only thing I'm focused on at this moment. So I'm just focused on the next game against Mexico and winning this one, then going to the next one.”

Robinson, three years Aaronson’s senior and a relegation survivor himself, nodded sagely.

“Great answer,” said the Fulham fullback.

Just over a year on from completing one of the biggest-ever transfers involving a US player, moving from RB Salzburg to Leeds for a reported $30 million fee, Aaronson doesn’t look all that different. Yet the bruising experiences of a nightmare season in West Yorkshire have clearly left a mark – and deepened his appreciation of the USMNT environment.

“It's been a long season,” he said. “It's been tough in a lot of things. But I mean, coming here and being with the guys, it's great. I'm really enjoying it. We're having a great time as a group. And yeah, we're looking forward to defending our title and then going back and winning another one.

“We don't really talk about personal things, I think,” he later added of the ‘brotherhood’ that US players and staff pride themselves on. “Coming into camp, it's just about having fun, and seeing the guys for the first time in a while. I know a lot of [people on the] outside know that we like to get into golf, so we've had days to go out and enjoy ourselves and not focus on other things.”

After dramatically dodging the drop on the final day of the 2021-22 season, Leeds struggled for consistency throughout their third year back in the top flight. The increasingly desperate Whites churned through three managers – including American Jesse Marsch, who also coached Aaronson at Salzburg – and sank into a morass of negativity as their legions of supporters turned on several players, with Aaronson and Weston McKennie (on loan from Juventus) drawing more than their share of criticism.

At least for this month, the Yanks get to leave all that behind. The USMNT’s awkward state of transition, with Gregg Berhalter’s former assistant BJ Callaghan their second interim leader as the process of hiring the next permanent head coach drags on, is mellow by comparison.

“Yeah, it's been an interesting year with all the coaches that have come in, but I think BJ has been here for a long time – ever since the beginning,” said Aaronson. “He knows how we want to play. He knows the players that we have really well. So not much has changed. And I think the biggest thing for us is, the players have stayed together through all of it. We're the same team and we love each other a lot and we get along so well, and I think that helps on the field a ton.”

He knows Callaghan better than most, the two having worked together at the Union as Aaronson rapidly climbed the ranks of Philly’s academy and second team. The Medford, New Jersey native referenced that history to underline his commitment to do whatever is asked of him on the pitch this weekend, be it working in wide areas or as a central midfielder.

The USMNT aim to extend their ongoing unbeaten streak against El Tri and book a berth in the CNL final vs. either Canada or Panama.

“I've known BJ for a long time, it goes all the way back to the Philadelphia Union, and now it's great to see his rise and great to see him get a chance as the head coach,” said Aaronson. “I'm really happy for him, first and foremost.

“We've talked about it and the thing about me is I can play different positions. So I don't really mind playing each one, I’ve been rolled out in each position in this camp, so I really don't prefer. It's completely up to him and I'm just willing to help the team whatever position I’m in.”