CHESTER, Pa. — With a goal and a standout performance in his MLS debut on Sunday night in Atlanta, 18-year-old Brenden Aaronson showed 45,140 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium many of the attributes Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin has known about since he was a mop-topped 10-year-old.
Curtin’s relationship with Brenden dates back to his days as a youth coach, when Aaronson was training one day a week with the Union Juniors program while still competing for Real Jersey FC back home in Medford, New Jersey. Early in Aaronson’s time in the program, Curtin even suggested his dad not let his son travel to Europe because they might never see him again.
“I think there’s a comfort level there with the family with myself, with our academy staff,” Curtin said, noting that he was able to catch glimpses of Aaronson’s development after his move to the first-team coaching staff as the playmaker progressed through the academy ranks.
“To now see him against the MLS champion where there’s, both teams included, probably $100 million in talent on the field against Atlanta and him being in the top three in the field – and you couldn’t even argue that – is something that his parents should be really proud of, he should be really proud of ... but it’s just a start.”
Aaronson did end up going to Europe with a group of top players from the region on a trip to Ajax, where it just so happens the coach he made his debut against on Sunday night — Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer — was the first-team manager at the time.
Returning from the trip, Aaronson would go on to join the first Union Under-14 team to play in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Also on that team in the 2013-14 season were fellow Union HomegrownsMark McKenzie, Anthony Fontana and Matthew Real along with Benfica and US U-20s goalkeeper CJ dos Santos.
“That year we were very, very good so we definitely throw a couple jokes, throwbacks about that kind of stuff,” Aaronson said. “It’s good seeing them here and seeing how far that they’ve gotten too because they’re unbelievable players.”
The first Union Homegrown from over the river in South Jersey, Aaronson was known, even from his early days playing for Medford Soccer Club, as the kid who could do it all on the pitch and never stopped running.
“His touch on the ball, his technical ability, his skills and then his way of using his skills in the right context and tactical awareness at a young age,” said Drew Wagner, a former youth coach whose son JD played in the academy with Brenden and as far back as when they were both 5. “He was always a pass-first player who made everybody better.”
Growing up in a community that’s seen players from the local high school go on to play in the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS (Jeff Zaun and Stephen King), soccer was always the sport of choice for both Brenden and his younger brother, Paxten.
That desire came in part from an early introduction to the sport from their dad, Rusty, who came out of an influential soccer community in Monmouth County and played NCAA Division I soccer at Monmouth University.
“A lot of it was on Brenden,” Union academy director Tommy Wilson said. “He took the responsibility, he took advantage of the resources we provided, but also the resources he had at home, and relied on his dad and his brother. I grew up with two soccer-playing brothers so I know what it’s like. You’re trying to be the best player in your house before you do anything else.”
The countless hours spent in a 5-foot-by-5-foot pitch in their basement was especially important during a challenging time in his development a few years ago when many of his peers were hitting growth spurts and Brenden was struggling.
“There were many games where Brenden struggled physically, but he didn’t struggle intellectually and he didn’t struggle with his ideas in the game,” Wilson said. “It’d be easier if you have a crystal ball, but you have to look three, four years down the road at the potential and we’re seeing that now with Brenden.”
The physical side of his game is still an area for development, but he showed in his successful season at the USL level last year with Bethlehem Steel FC that he’s not easily intimidated, breaking his collarbone early in the season.
Returning from injury, his meteoric rise continued in USL play before the Union announced his Homegrown signing in September. He was added to the first-team roster in January and with his goal in his debut on Sunday matched the feat of fellow Homegrown midfielder Fontana, who scored in his first MLS start in the season opener in 2018.
“Just to score for your hometown team in a big game like that, I just want to thank my coaches and my teammates for giving me a chance,” Aaronson said. “It was just fantastic having everyone run over to the sideline with me.”