National Writer: Charles Boehm

Philadelphia Union product Brenden Aaronson talks Austrian adventure: "I couldn't ask for a better start"

Regular playing time marked by goals and assists with Red Bull Salzburg, his team in first place and headed for a domestic cup final, a quiet, welcoming vibe in his new community – oh yeah, and a call-up to his country’s senior national team during the current international window.

Life is pretty good in Austria for Brenden Aaronson right now, even if he’s not the type of 20-year-old to take it for granted.

So good, in fact, that the Philadelphia Union homegrown didn’t even have to board a flight to join the US men’s national team this week ahead of Thursday’s friendly vs. Jamaica, even as many of his US teammates elsewhere on the continent tangled with the web of COVID-19 restrictions complicating movement across Europe.

“It wasn't that far of a drive. It was like three hours,” Aaronson related to reporters in a Monday media availability. “It was a pretty smooth sailing getting here.”

That phrase can also be applied to his experience in Austria following his multi-million-dollar winter transfer from the Union. Working under American coach Jesse Marsch in a pressing system not unlike Philly’s, the Medford, New Jersey native sounds content with his first months away from home.

“The club, the staff, the players have just made me feel like it's my second home now,” said the 2020 MLS Best XI honoree. “So everything's been going great and I think on the field, being able to play right off the bat is always a great thing. I can't speak enough about just Jesse, the staff there, the players, it's just been great. And then coming into this camp, I think I have a lot of confidence, which is nice because I think I've been playing well."

Thursday’s match will take place at Stadion Wiener Neustadt in Vienna’s southern outskirts, a small lower-division venue that’s becoming a second home for the USMNT thanks to its viability as a European base in pandemic times, having previously hosted their 6-2 friendly win over Panama in November.

Salzburg is a much larger city, a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its architecture and Alpine surroundings that’s home to several universities. But it’s tranquil enough to limit unhelpful distractions for a young professional with big ambitions for the future.

“It is a lot different than home. It’s a very quiet city, it's like a family city. Everybody knows everybody,” explained Aaronson, who reeled off a list of loved ones who’ve visited or plan to in the months ahead. “I love the beautiful nature side of things, I like going on walks, bike rides, all that kind of thing. So for me, I feel like it's the perfect city for myself to just kind of go and do those kinds of things.

“So yeah, I mean, I'm really enjoying life. I couldn't ask for a better start at this club and hopefully it just keeps going from here and we just win these two trophies that we're part of, and that'll be a successful season for me.”

It’s not entirely clear where Aaronson presently fits into USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s system, a significantly different one from Salzburg’s even as the United States have added a more aggressive pressing element to their model. That makes the midfielder one of the more interesting subplots of this month’s camp, the first full-strength gathering he’s been a part of since October 2019.

“I've been in camp enough to know what my role is here and what position I'm going to play and that kind of thing,” said Aaronson on Monday. “I'm really just going to do whatever Gregg asks me to do. If it’s playing center mid, if it's playing winger, if it’s playing a little bit more defensive, it's what I'm going to do to help the team and that's what I'm here for. I want to help the team win these two games.

“I'm really, really confident in the way we play here.”

Aaronson has risen from one challenge to the next since gaining prominence as a teenage prospect in Philly’s academy and he sounds hungry to learn from Berhalter, Marsch and anyone else willing to share high-level “football knowledge” to help him keep growing.

“I've been learning a ton under Jesse and Red Bull Salzburg right now. These past couple months I feel like I've been just rapid learning,” he said. “Every game has gotten better and better and the team's been performing at a very high level. And the thing that I feel like I've grown dramatically in, I think it's my final-third outcome.

"I feel like in the final third I've been making the right decisions with Red Bull Salzburg right now, and I'm constantly getting in that position to make the final-third pass. And that's something that will only help me with the national team, because I'm going to get chances here to play that final pass, to score that final shot.”

A year ago Aaronson was set to lead the US Under-23s into Concacaf Olympic qualifying, a rapid rise considering his limited involvement in youth national teams up to that point. Thanks to pandemic delays and his own personal growth, he now finds himself knocking on the door of the senior team.

Where might he find himself in another 12 months? That’s an exciting question for all involved.

“I feel like whenever I come in with Gregg and the assistant coaches here, I'm always learning something new, and I'm always learning something different about the game. I think that's what's really special about here,” Aaronson said. “It's also learning off my teammates like Christian [Pulisic], Gio [Reyna], Josh [Sargent], all these guys, even the guys that play in the EPL, all these different players have so much different knowledge and it's awesome to kind of learn from.”