Paxten Aaronson, 16, officially inked his MLS contract last week, following in his big brother Brenden’s footsteps. And for their longest-running coach — that would be their father, Rusty — it was their extended, ferocious 1v1 battles, soccer tennis matches and training sessions together during quarantine lockdown that made him realize his younger son was ready for the next level.
Rusty is also president of Real Jersey FC, a small youth club that was recently admitted to MLS’s new youth league, and earlier this year was set to launch an indoor training center in Medford, New Jersey. The coronavirus outbreak delayed the facility’s public opening, but the Aaronson boys were cleared to use it. Their brotherly competitiveness took over.
“It was like they were young again,” said their father, who says he got involved with his kids' soccer development because he couldn’t find the type of program he wanted for Brenden and several other talented players in his age group. “Doing the little things, they were competing, they were having fun. I would leave some days — I’d open the place, they’d go, I’d come back an hour and a half, two hours later, and they’d still be in there, fifth set, getting pissed off at each other, then eventually I would have to stay so they didn’t kill each other!”
Brenden, now 19, was accustomed to spotting Paxten a few goals when they faced off, but the gap between the brothers narrowed.
“A year ago where Brenden was giving Paxten two goals to five; little by little Paxten was whittling that down,” said Rusty. “It used to be four to five, then three, and two, and then at the end of March, it was straight up, and Paxten was beating him on a regular basis. And that’s when I knew: You know what, something good came out of this pandemic.”
While the younger bro — already dubbed “Pax10” by the DOOP community — continues to play for Philly’s USL Championship side before joining the first team full-time in January, European transfer rumors swirl around Brenden, a member of the MLS is Back Tournament Best XI presented by BODYARMOR and suddenly one of the league’s most-hyped youngsters. The duo’s rise has been years in the making, and now comparisons are inevitable given that they’re both attacking midfielders.
“They're a little different,” said Rusty. “Earlier, Brenden would run and run and run and run and just run, where Paxten is a little more slippery and if you lose sight of him he's going to punish you. And he’s done that at an earlier age. Brenden finds pockets too, obviously, but I think Paxten at this age is a little stronger; he’s built a little different.
“Paxten has just learned so much from Brenden and some of the things that he's done right, some of the things that he's done wrong. And he's kind of evolved his game.”
Academics have detected a phenomenon of younger siblings among high-level professional athletes — driven, it seems, to follow, learn from and eventually overtake their elder kin. This may be a factor in the Aaronson household.
“[Brenden’s] biggest detriment and his best quality: He's a defender as a 10,” said their father. “You listen to people [say], ‘He's a 10, he needs to find the ball, he needs to …’ — he’s not a 10. If you guys can't figure that out, you don't understand the game or the system he’s playing in. He's a hybrid. He's not a true 10. He's an eight-and-a-half, or whatever the new 10s are evolving to. It's not like we purposely worked on that, that’s just how he plays.
“Paxten is way more comfortable on the ball in tight spaces at 16 years old than Brenden was. Now, Brenden, that's where his comfort zone is, in tight spaces. But I think Paxten being the little brother — we played rondos from the time that he was 6, 7, with the older boys. He was in the mix … always with his head up and looking around. He got the benefits of being the younger brother.”
Even if they interpret the nuances of their position differently, the brothers share some key tools that bode well for their continued growth as pros.
“The thing that I think you can say both of them have that you don't see in so many new players is how quickly they think and how quickly they recognize situations on the field,” said Union academy coach Ryan Richter, a former pro who coached Paxten’s team last season. “Just really, really quick thinkers who can solve a lot of problems because of how quickly they can process information.
“Brenden covers a lot more ground and makes a lot more things happen with his movement. And Paxten is so creative with the ball, sees passes that no one on the field sees. And he just surprises you with some of the quality that he produces. So both, to me, are top, top prospects.”
Dad deserves some credit, too.
“Really the big thing is probably just how much they've influenced each other,” said Matt Ralph, a writer who has covered the Union and their youth system, including the Aaronson boys, for years. “Also their dad is a huge part of the story with them, growing up with a coach — I mean, he's a coach that’s a dad, he’s not a dad who coaches. There’s definitely a distinction between those.”
Rusty and his wife Janell also work to keep their kids grounded, and after Brenden signed his MLS deal in 2018, dad discovered that his advice was being echoed by the kid’s veteran roommate on road trips.
“Haris Medunjanin rubbed off on Brenden in so many good ways, just as a seasoned pro,” said Rusty of the former Bosnian international who’s now with FC Cincinnati. “He told Brenden the things that you need to do and the things that you don't need to do, and they kind of mirrored what his old man was telling him.”
Philly have taken a long-term approach to their academy project, and that’s fostered a relationship of trust among families. It also helps that head coach Jim Curtin has known them since their eldest was 9, thanks to his time coaching in the academy system, and that over the years Real Jersey have sent a steady stream of promising young players across the Delaware River to join the Union.
“Listen, I get it’s a business,” said Rusty. “But I think these guys want what's best for Brenden. I truly believe that, from what's been shown and just the things that I've seen and the feedback I get daily and weekly from Brenden.”
If you’re wondering if the Aaronsons have any other prospects in the pipeline, take note of younger sister Jaden, a member of the state-champion Real Jersey FC 06 girls team that Rusty coaches, currently competing in the US Youth Soccer National League. The Union don’t have an NWSL team for Jaden to aim for – not yet, at least – but the family are happy to find themselves at the heart of the club’s narrative of nurturing Homegrowns.
“It’s a great story,” said Rusty, “and we’re living it, and we continue to live it."