National Writer: Charles Boehm

"Tremendous potential": Paxten Aaronson shows hype as US punch FIFA U-20 World Cup ticket

Sudden chaos erupted at the final whistle of the US Under-20 men’s national team’s 2-0 victory over Costa Rica in their Concacaf U-20 Championship quarterfinal clash in Honduras on Tuesday night.

Winger Cade Cowell and several other members of the US squad were confronted and in some cases attacked by red-clad opponents. Backup goalkeeper Antonio Carrera appeared to even take a flying kick to the back from Ticos midfielder Creichel Pérez as the two teams mixed it up in the aftermath of an ill-tempered, high-stakes match at Estadio Francisco Morazán in San Pedro Sula, with coaches wading in to separate the sides.

“We're happy with qualification. At the same point, we’re disappointed with the end of the match, with what happened,” US U-20s head coach Mikey Varas told reporters afterwards. “Obviously player safety is always a primary concern of ours and we were disappointed. We're hoping that Concacaf investigates thoroughly and provides us with more clarity, because those types of situations cannot happen.”

Paxten Aaronson was right in the midst of the melee. But the Philadelphia Union homegrown kept his cool both during and after the victory, scoring a goal in the early stages of each half to book the United States’ place at the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup set for Indonesia next spring.

“I just think the emotions were high. Of course it was a big game and nobody wants to lose,” said Aaronson, reiterating the ‘fire and ice’ theme his coach has emphasized during the tournament. “But I'm super proud of the team for keeping their cool and just staying levelheaded and getting the group together. We’re looking forward to the next games.

“Mikey always pretty preaches to us [about] having fire but also having to come in and knowing when to keep the ice. So I think the team did a great job of handling those situations. Because of course in games like this, high stakes, things may get chippy.”

The performance is the latest signpost in the younger Aaronson’s rise to prominence. His outlook could yet take on an even steeper upward trajectory than that of his older brother Brenden, who over the past year has skyrocketed up the US senior national team’s depth chart and earned a $30 million move to Premier League side Leeds United after thriving with Austrian power RB Salzburg.

“Pax10,” to use the shorthand applied to him around the Union, is more of an out-and-out playmaker than Brenden. But he offers the same boundless pressing energy and clinical technique, and is showing an ability to impact matches with efficient use of relatively limited time on the ball.

While the U-20s use the same 4-3-3 shape and concepts as the USMNT in order to help prepare players for the senior team, some of their best moments in Honduras have come in the counter-pressing and transition situations that the Union’s system feasts on.

“I think we've been one of the teams that has given the opponents’ back lines the least amount of time to be on the ball and make decisions. So really proud, we've been able to press in a few different ways,” said Varas, calling it “the foundation, that relentlessness that we need to press.”

Deployed in a false No. 9 role at the spearhead of the 4-3-3, Aaronson made just 23 passes (completing 18) against Costa Rica and took three shots, making the most of his touches. His chemistry with fellow Philly academy product Quinn Sullivan – who assisted on the opener – was evident and Aaronson truly came to life in the Ticos’ penalty box, showing a keen sense of timing and opportunism.

“I've mostly been slotting into the No. 9 and I'm just happy to do whatever I can to help the team, what can get me on the field and whatever coach thinks can help the team,” said Aaronson. “I've embraced it. I've actually really enjoyed playing the 9, it's a little different to what I've used to been playing, but it's similar in ways. I like always getting in the box. I like making runs in behind, using my speed. And I like just getting the ball in dangerous areas. And I think that's where I thrive.”

With 185 minutes and just one start in MLS play this season, Paxten has found first-team opportunities limited at club level, with high-caliber veterans like Daniel Gazdag and Mikael Uhre producing for Philly head coach Jim Curtin as the Union sit first in the Eastern Conference standings. The 18-year-old’s upside is clearly enormous nonetheless, with several prominent European clubs reportedly keeping a keen watch, and Varas urged him to take the next step when he returns from this tournament.

“Paxten’s got tremendous potential. A talent is there, it’s obvious, he’s a hard worker and what sets apart Paxten is he’s very realistic also,” said Varas. “He knows with his first team, the first team is doing well, the guys ahead of him are scoring goals. So he’s showing up to training every day, ready to fight for a spot. And when his number gets called, his goal is to not let that spot go. But he also understands the reality of first-team football. So it's been great that he’s been able to be here and let loose a little bit and we see a really bright future for him.”

Another huge test awaits the US U-20s on Friday (9 pm ET | FS1, TUDN): A semifinal clash with hosts Honduras in front of what’s expected to be a big, loud home crowd in San Pedro Sula. With Concacaf having merged the 2024 Olympic qualification process with this event, the semifinal winners will book a spot at the Paris Summer Games.

Considering Los Catrachos have beaten the young Yanks at the same hurdle in the past two Olympic qualifying cycles, it’s a massive moment not only for this team but the entire US men’s program. The US last earned an Olympics men’s soccer ticket in 2008.

“The Olympics is such a big deal,” said Aaronson. “And for me and the team, we know that we get the chance to make history for the first time in, I think, three qualification stages we haven't qualified. So the team knows how big it is and the team I know will be up for it. And I'm just looking forward to it.”