Brenden Aaronson wasn't a hyped prospect when he entered his teenage years.
The Medford, New Jersey native wasn't a name that all keen observers of youth soccer were keeping an eye on as he progressed through the Philadelphia Union academy, to their second team then finally the first team. He wasn't a youth prodigy that was the focal point of national team camps, hell, he never even got called up to a youth national camp until after he made his professional debut.
But Aaronson sure is exiting his teenage years as a globally recognized prospect.
Aaronson's move from the Union to RB Salzburg, as first reported by MLSsoccer.com, is finally official after the destination has long been clear. The tenacious, indefatigable midfielder moves to the Austrian titleholders and Champions League club in January. He moves for an initial fee of $6 million with add-ons that could take the deal to $9 million, sources tell MLSsoccer.com. Philly also retain a sell-on percentage between 10-20%, depending on his next transfer.
It's a huge day for Aaronson, Philly and MLS.
Why Salzburg is the perfect fit
Aaronson was a wanted commodity, there were plenty of potential options. It was about finding the right place for the player's development as well as a deal that made sense for the Union.
Celtic, Anderlecht, Hoffenheim and many other clubs were interested in Aaronson, but RB Salzburg proved to be the perfect fit.
Salzburg's American head coach Jesse Marsch is a big fan of the midfielder. They qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage and are a good bet to at least be in the Europa League knockout rounds by the time Aaronson joins in January, after the group stage wraps up. They have won the Austrian Bundesliga seven seasons in a row, too, playing a high-pressing style Aaronson has thrived in with the Union.
Watch: Best of Aaronson in MLS
Perhaps most importantly, Salzburg are renowned for their talent identification and development. Over the last few years, the club have sold the likes of Erling Haaland, Sadio Mane, Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano just to name a few.
On the financial side of things, a $6 million up-front fee is a huge figure. It's the second-highest transfer fee paid for a Homegrown Player in MLS, behind only Alphonso Davies' move from the Vancouver Whitecaps to Bayern Munich.
The Union were also able to keep Aaronson through the 2020 MLS season, another big win. Just three points behind Supporters' Shield-leading Toronto FC, Aaronson has the chance to chase trophies before departing.
Philly's proof of concept
As huge as the move is for the player, it's also a watershed moment for the club.
The Union have invested in their academy as the club changed its model, looking to become more in-tune with global soccer. The move started under former sporting director Earnie Stewart and was ratcheted up by current sporting director Ernst Tanner.
Tanner had previously worked for German club Hoffenheim and then Salzburg, where he was the academy director for one of the premier youth development clubs in the world. Aaronson's transfer is a historic day for Philadelphia — as it's their first sale of a player to Europe — but it's routine for Tanner.
These kind of deals are instrumental for the Union to have success in MLS. The club surely isn't one of the big spenders in the league. They need to get meaningful contributions from academy talent as well as hitting lucrative transfers down the line to make the investment worth it. Between Aaronson and center back Mark McKenzie, the Union have two players playing above average at their positions for incredible value given their contracts.
Aaronson's development under head coach Jim Curtin, on top of the club's success over the past few seasons, rewards their patience and vision. Curtin has been in charge in Philly since 2014, the second-longest tenured coach in the league. He has been instrumental in pushing the club up the Eastern Conference standings.
As Philly watch as Aaronson continues his ascension with proud eyes — and financial incentive, given their sell on percentage — they'll turn their focus to developing the next big-time academy graduate. They already have a few obvious candidates in the first team.
McKenzie on teammate Aaronson
McKenzie, a US youth international center back, has been subject to interest from Celtic and other European clubs while Salzburg and others were courting Aaronson. It'd be a surprise if he's in MLS for all that much longer.
Anthony Fontana has started to show his potential and could figure into a regular starting role in 2021, depending on what recruits Tanner and the front office conjure up this offseason. Fullback Matt Real has been in the first team a few years despite being just 21 years old. Jack de Vries and Cole Turner were elevated to the MLS roster this season.
And, hey, there's even another Aaronson joining the first team next year. Paxten Aaronson, as well as Jack McGlynn and Nathan Harriel, have signed deals starting in 2021.
Thanks to Brenden's ascent and transfer, blazing a path from the Union's burgeoning academy to the UEFA Champions League, he laid a path for all kids following him can aspire to and follow. Maybe it'll be Paxten one day in a few years, too.