Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin has made it clear: Like the rest of his squad, rising stars Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie are firmly focused on winning the MLS is Back Tournament. Unlike the rest of his squad, though, the young Americans are the subject of widely reported interest from abroad.
And they'll be on display once again Wednesday in the semifinal of the tournament against the Portland Timbers (8 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, TSN, TVAS).
“The hype around our players is real," Curtin said last week. "It’s always flattering to have interest in your young players, it’s no secret that our model is to sell our first player to Europe. Keeping Brenden and Mark humble and hungry is the job of our entire technical staff. The talent is certainly there, and if they continue to play the way they do, I’m sure some concrete offers will come in for them.”
Aaronson and McKenzie being on European radars is not new, nor is it something to happen out of the blue at this tournament, but their excellent form in Orlando certainly hasn't hurt. ESPN's Taylor Twellman reported during the group stage Celtic are interested in McKenzie, while MLSsoccer.com confirmed various reports that about six Bundesliga teams are interested in Aaronson, as well as revealing Celtic and a Belgian club are in the sweepstakes as well.
Both players have started all five Union games at the tournament and earned every minute. McKenzie has helped anchor a defensive unit that has conceded just three goals in their run to the semifinal while Aaronson's indefatigable work-rate has been coupled with three assists, including this dime that lit Twitter ablaze under fire emojis and praise for the 19-year-old midfielder.
"Brenden is quite a unique player, and that’s the reason why so many people are very interested in him at this moment,” sporting director Ernst Tanner told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jonathan Tannenwald. “If you see his individual creativity; if you see his first touch, which is always going forward; if you see his passing ability and his vision of the game.”
Neither have shied away from the interest, each talking about their goals to make it in Europe, but remain focused on helping the Union win their first-ever trophy in Orlando.
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"I’ve seen some of the stuff going around but that’s just not – I don't really like to pay attention to that stuff because I'm in a tournament and I want to play the best that I can, and that kind of stuff can get into young kids, but didn't for me," Aaronson said after the club's win over Sporting KC. "And I just went out and tried to play my game and I didn't worry about that kind of stuff. All I want to do is win for the team and help my team win."
“It’s always a blessing to draw interest from clubs in Europe," McKenzie said. "As a kid, you dream of playing at the top clubs in the world and the Champions League. ... It’s great that there’s interest, it’s exciting, but I’m here to do my job for the club. I’m focused on helping the team and ultimately help Philly get this win.”
As long as they keep doing their job, it won't be long before concrete offers start arriving. And then the next crop of rising Union talent will get their chance to shine, too.