CINCINNATI – Maybe it was a calculated declaration of intent. Maybe he really is fearless, or reckless, or some combination thereof. Or maybe, at age 21, he’s just too young to think too much about it or know any better.
Whatever your explanation, it’s clear that Brenden Aaronson is ready to take on England – not only as the third-most-expensive incoming transfer in Leeds United’s long history, but also as a very likely member of the US men’s national team squad that will meet the Three Lions in Group B play at the World Cup in Qatar on Nov. 25.
“They're a fantastic team,” Aaronson said of England in a Monday media roundtable ahead of the USMNT’s friendly vs. Morocco on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMas, TUDN). “They have such a depth in the roster, and the kids that they have coming up, it's a tremendous team.
“But for us, I feel like we don't fear anybody. I mean, we're young, but we have some older guys, but I think we're perfect in that sense: We're not afraid of anybody,” he added, pointing to the “old heads” on this chronologically young squad. “We're going to give it our all in this tournament. We're not going to go to the World Cup to be a participant, we're going there to win. England's in our group, and we're going to try to win this game. So I think that we have no fear and they should fear us.”
"I want to be a part of history"
Aaronson knows that these are the sort of words that could be thrown back at him after he arrives in West Yorkshire this summer following his $30 million move from Austria's RB Salzburg. Having been tracked and pursued by Leeds for months, he’s educated himself – and gotten some firsthand beta from the Whites’ American manager, Jesse Marsch – on the pressure cooker that awaits.
“Going into a city like Leeds, where it's the only team in the city, you can tell how passionate the fans are. I mean, from watching them for about half a year now, you can hear the chants that echo in the stadium, you know how football is a way of culture there. It's huge for them,” said the Medford, New Jersey native.
“I talked to Jesse a little bit about it. The fans, they're amazing, and they're always going to support you. And it's tough, maybe the media and stuff like that, but that's something I'm ready for. And I want to challenge myself mentally and physically … It's a historic club, it's a big club. And I want to be a part of history for them.”
Asked about the size of that fee, which rose steadily as Salzburg rejected Leeds’ first few offers, Aaronson admitted that it was stunning for him, too.
“Seeing the number just kind of go up and go up was crazy,” he said. “They see you and value you as this player and that's why I'm grateful for Leeds, because they value me like this, and they think that I can be a big player in the future and a big player for them now. So for me, it's a surreal feeling.”
"I can help Leeds"
After a brutal roller-coaster of a second season in the Premier League, Marsch and LUFC dodged relegation by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the campaign, a dramatic escape Aaronson and his girlfriend, Temple University soccer player Milana D'Ambra, watched in agony in a cafe in Vienna.
Leeds’ win over Brentford, combined with Burnley’s loss to Newcastle, didn’t just secure EPL survival for the club; it was necessary for Aaronson’s transfer to reach fruition. Soon he’ll have to come to grips with the LUFC way of life, and handle the heavy expectations that his price tag – one of the biggest fees ever paid for a US-reared player – imposes.
He frames that challenge as a mere sidecar to the European dreams that he and teammates like Christian Pulisic are chasing. Pulisic moved from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea in 2019 for $73 million.
“Even Christian had a big transfer fee, and a lot of these guys have all over the world,” said Aaronson. “Everybody has to deal with this kind of stuff. So it's not like I can't. I believe in myself, and I believe that I can be worth that. And I can help Leeds.
“I got a little definition about the player that Leeds want, and I think I fit that,” he added. “They celebrate a tackle like a goal, and I'm going to be that guy that's not only going to be the creative outlet or the guy that's going to be playing I guess, the [No.] 10 or winger or whatever. I'm going to be the guy that's going to be working hard too, and that's what Leeds is.”
Sure enough, the day after Aaronson’s remarks, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter revealed that he’ll be given a runout as one of the twin No. 8s in the Yanks’ 4-3-3 system against Morocco, a shift from the wide role he manned for most of their qualifying campaign.
“Yeah, I think he fits in both. Tomorrow we're going to play him in the middle to see how he does, use his mobility, try to get him between the lines,” said Berhalter. “It'll be interesting to see what he does in the game.”
More from Philly?
It could well be another big moment in Aaronson’s strikingly rapid progression from baby-faced Philadelphia Union kid to relentless USMNT standout. With each rung of the ladder he ascends, he’s helping raise the ceiling of what’s possible for US talents abroad and growing the name of the Philly academy project. And growing the bank balance, too, in the case of the reported $5 million sell-on fee his first professional club will reap from his move to Leeds.
As firmly as he believes in his own capacity to grow into the new challenges ahead, Aaronson, whose younger brother Paxten is on the same track in Philly, sounds just as certain that others will follow in his footsteps.
“I can say there's going to be a lot more talents coming out of the Philadelphia Union Academy. I think that it's only starting now,” he said. “You can see it in the first team now, you have five or six kids on the bench that are consistently getting minutes and I think that there's going to be another big transfer coming out, sooner than later, I would imagine. So I'm really proud of where I came from, and I'm super happy to have had this kind of thing [sell-on fee] go towards them, because they deserve it.”