Warshaw: What to expect when Brenden Aaronson, Paxton Pomykal face off

Saturday will feature something we don’t see often: Two American teenagers at the heart of their teams.

At Talen Energy Stadium, 18-year-old Brenden Aaronson of the Philadelphia Union will face off vs. 19-year-old Paxton Pomykal of FC Dallas (7:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info).

Both are locally developed, hometown kids who have pushed their way into the first teams of the professional clubs they supported as children. And they’re not just appearing for them, either, but leading.

They aren’t filling in for someone because of an injury. They aren’t making up the numbers and following the lead of veterans around them. They are key cogs in the systems that their teams have built. Their coaches, Jim Curtin with the Union and Luchi Gonzalez in Dallas, have entrusted them with huge responsibilities.

Let’s take a look at each of them as a player, why they’ve forced their way into the team and what could take them to the next level.

Brenden Aaronson

What’s gotten him to this point...

  • He’s excellent at receiving the ball in traffic. The part that gets me the most excited (and also, for my money, the most distinguishable attribute that Americans lack compared to South Americans) – he feints before he receives the ball. As the pass is traveling to him, he drops a shoulder one way and manipulates the ball the other way. He unbalances defenders before he even gets a touch. In the clip below of his goal against Atlanta, notice his action as the ball travels toward him, and how he sends Eric Remedi the wrong way. Similarly, he orients his body well prior to receiving a pass. He’s always moving his hips, shoulders, and head to get the optimal body position. As a result, he opens up options on the field.
  • He has a feel for how to impact the game. Sometimes young, incredibly talented players get a few starts and play on the periphery of the match. They show flashes of skill, but don’t really impact the flow of the game. Perhaps they aren’t fit enough – the difference in the number of actions per game between a youth game and a professional game is huge – or they don’t see the moments. Aaronson doesn’t have either of those problems. He’s constantly impacting the game.
  • To help with both bullet points above, he’s resilient. He doesn’t mind messing up. When he makes a mistake, he doesn’t shy away; he looks to get the ball again.

What he needs to do to get to the next level:

  • He probably needs a quicker burst of speed. It’s hard to be an elite attacker without the ability to separate from defenders over five yards. Aaronson has a quick first step, but he’s a little slower over 5-10 yards. He can’t power beyond players to the ball or to a spot. One point of comparison here would be the Houston Dynamo’s Mauro Manotas. Manotas has always been quick, but this year he’s put on some muscle and become powerful, allowing him to take his game to the next level. Fortunately, Aaronson, only 18 still, should have some physical maturation to come.
  • Will he contribute enough goals? He doesn’t strike a shot as clean as you’d like to see, and it’s unclear if he has the instinct to steal goals. It’s not a deal breaker, as it’s possible to be an elite attacking midfielder while only scoring six or seven goals a season, but it’s something he could work on.

Paxton Pomykal

What’s gotten him to this point...

  • Where to start? He’s comfortable taking the ball in tough spots; he has a feel for possession and pass selection; he can play the final pass; and he works his butt off. Pomykal is the most complete American player since Michael Bradley (and Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien before that).
  • The part that’s the most encouraging about Pomykal: he’s incredibly soccer-athletic. He accelerates well, which allows him to close space quickly and/or separate from defenders. He also has a low center of gravity. He glides with the ball and always looks balanced. Some players are wonderfully gifted, but they are limited by their bodies (it’s a sad fact of the sport). Pomykal isn’t; his body is an asset.
  • Pomykal has a mature demeanor on the field. He wants – expects – to be the dominant figure. He feels personally afflicted if the game isn’t going in Dallas’ favor. He’s not there as passenger, happy to be getting games as a teenager. He wants to be the leading role. It feels similar to watching Tyler Adams in 2017.

What he needs to do to get to the next level:

  • His first touch gets loose at times. It’s one thing to be good on the ball, it’s another thing to be English Premier League-good on the ball. It’s a similar question I had about Miguel Almiron going to Newcastle. We knew Almiron was a fantastic player; my biggest concern was whether he was as fantastic as the likes of Mesut Ozil, Christian Eriksen, and Juan Mata. It’s not about having a deficiency, it’s just a matter of are you THAT good? Pomykal might be there, but he also might not. He probably needs to be a percentage point cleaner on the ball.

There’s plenty to be excited about. It’s also important to remember that their careers will hit valleys. All careers do. And careers are largely determined by how you react in those rough periods. It’s impossible to predict how a person will react in those moments, and thus it’s nearly impossible to predict a player’s trajectory.

But to get to the highest levels, there are base attributes required. Aaronson and Pomykal appear to have those foundations. We will get a glimpse of them going head to head in Major League Soccer on Saturday.

The next time it happens? The imagination is free to wander.

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