Voices: Greg Seltzer

Exclusive: Brenden Aaronson talks dream start in Salzburg, USMNT hopes and more

Brenden Aaronson - RB Salzburg - jump

We all know that making the initial leap to Europe is often challenging for young players, but smooth landings overseas are available to those that put themselves in the right situation to succeed.

Suffice it to say that Red Bull Salzburg youngster Brenden Aaronson fits the latter description, giving the Philadelphia Union homegrown a fantastic start to his overseas career. But Aaronson isn't just treading water for the Austrian Bundesliga giants. He's starting and shining.

"Red Bull Salzburg has so many talents," the 20-year-old told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Austria. "It's hard to come in and just play."

His mindset on arrival was one of “If I don't play, then I'm going to show them why I should play.” As it turns out, this brand of resolve was not at all necessary.

Aaronson debuted in the club's first league game back from the winter break, and then started the second, in which he set up the early winner. A few months on, he has four goals and three assists in 14 matches since joining American head coach Jesse Marsch’s team. Last MLS season, Aaronson moved to Salzburg from Philadelphia for a reported $6 million initially, a deal that could potentially rise to $9 million.

"You get a chance and take it," he said matter-of-factly. "Now it's just keeping it going, and show them you can help the team on a day-to-day basis."

Though La Liga’s Villarreal bounced them from the Europa League in February, Salzburg are 12-2 in league action when Aaronson plays. They're eight points clear atop the table and have an Austrian Cup final date with LASK set for May 1.

Joining a club where high expectations come as standard can be tricky, but Aaronson says this onus is driving him in Salzburg. What others may call pressure has inspired him to fit in and contribute to a team aiming for an eighth-straight league crown.

"The way we play here, the coaching staff, the players – it's just been a really smooth transition," said Aaronson. "We play with confidence. In every game, we come flying out of the gate.

"I'll do anything for my team to win, and that's something I've always prided myself on. I love the mentality here, where you're expected to win every game. You can even tell in training sessions, and it will only make me better."

Marsch, who won the 2015 Supporters' Shield as coach of the New York Red Bulls, has worked closely with Aaronson since his arrival, and the youngster has responded by handling some fast responsibilities. It helps that Marsch's soccer ethos pairs well with Aaronson's talents, taking the dogged high pressure he demonstrated with Philadelphia up a notch under a head coach known for using this maneuver as a cornerstone tactic.

"Pressing is something I've had my entire life," said Aaronson. "People always said I could run all day."

Of course, the second part of that tactic is taking those forced turnovers and quickly driving play toward the box to send opponents scrambling. This happens to be another Aaronson specialty, and Marsch has him doing it with a twist. 

Instead of operating from the central midfield channels, the coach has his young playmaker setting up his raids on the left flank. It's basically a familiar directive in a different locale, and it's playing to Aaronson's strengths.  

"Here, we don't speak of it as a winger," Aaronson explained. "It's more of a left-sided and right-sided No. 10. It fits me perfectly because I love cutting in on my right foot, switching fields or driving at the defender on my right foot."  

Aaronson is also quick to show gratitude to MLS, where he earned Best XI honors in 2020 and totaled seven goals and nine assists in 51 matches across two seasons. Those tests, honed under Union head coach Jim Curtin and a 2020 Supporters’ Shield-winning team, laid the groundwork for his current exploits.

Aaronson admits that several European clubs chased him, but Red Bull Salzburg proved the most alluring.

"When they called, it was easy," Aaronson stated. "Just looking at the club and what they've done in the past, what they've created. It's something you can't pass up." 

Sometimes it's the off-field adjustments that can trip up young transplants. Some visits to Salzburg from loved ones have eased the transition, but this remains a challenge even as he's melded well into Austrian life. 

"There's a lot of outside things when you come over here,” Aaronson said. “I'm away from my family for the first time. You're not seeing your mom, not seeing your dad, not seeing your girlfriend. It's all over the phone, and that's hard for young players. 

"I think I've adapted to the culture here," he added. "The city is so beautiful. My teammates have made me feel so welcome."

It may seem like 2021 has come up nothing but roses for Aaronson, but that’s not quite the case. He enjoyed his first toe-dip into Europa League waters, with Salzburg suffering a 4-1 aggregate defeat against Round of 32 foe Villarreal.

"It was eye-opening," he said, taking a positive view of the experience. "It's crazy the level that Villarreal play at. For me, it was a learning process. Now, hopefully, I'll go into the next Champions League to show what I can do."

Aaronson also conceded that it was heart-wrenching to watch the US Under-23 side fall short in last month's Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying tournament. Though disappointed over the decisive qualifying loss to Honduras, this turn of events will allow him to focus on senior-team matters when a busy international summer rolls around.

Aaronson said that USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter has yet to give any indication about what role he might play, or at which tournament in a pakced 2021, but figures that news will come in due time. He’s scored twice in four caps, including a recent 4-1 friendly win over fellow Concacaf side Jamaica.

Aaronson takes a similar "in the now" stance when mention of Red Bull Salzburg's tendency to send players onto bigger and better leagues comes up. He'd surely love to follow in the ascending footsteps of former club stars like Erling Haaland, Naby Keita and Sadio Mane, but says there will be time for such things later.

"I just want to be the best player I can be," declared Aaronson. "I'm going to work for that every day. The club has a pedigree for taking young talent and making it better.

"That's always in the back of your head, you want to go as far as you can. But right now I'm just focused on winning the league title, and then winning the cup. Whatever comes, comes for a reason."