‘This kid has it’: Brenden Aaronson at center stage of USA’s World Cup push

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<span>Photograph: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports

It took the US men’s national team two-and-a-half games to reach the cliff’s edge of World Cup qualifying panic. An insipid first 45 had them down 1-0 at the break in Honduras, a dispiriting performance that followed equally dispiriting back-to-back draws to open the cycle. This program had stared at that abyss before. Once again it was staring back at them.

Sweeping changes from head coach Gregg Berhalter were necessary. One of the players entrusted to salvage a result, and to silence a narrative building calling for his job, was 20-year-old RB Salzburg midfielder Brenden Aaronson.

“The fans look at you like they literally want to kill you,” Aaronson said. Welcome to Concacaf, young fella.

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Forty-five minutes later, the animosity from the stands assuredly grew. Aaronson played a key role in the United States’ improbable revival, scoring one of four second-half goals to earn a historic 4-1 victory. The scene in the Americans locker room was jovial and celebratory – or “hype” as Aaronson succinctly put it, a stark contrast from the dire view 45 minutes prior.

Aaronson wouldn’t get to savor it for too long. He would be heading straight for the airport with a plane back to Europe to catch.

“I wish I could have went back to my hotel room and enjoyed, like, a chocolate chip cookie or something,” Aaronson said.

The September World Cup qualifying window served as a neat microcosm of Aaronson’s young career. Presented with new challenges and new levels, he’s met and exceeded the bar immediately at every stop. Like scoring on his MLS debut at age 18 when few outside of Philadelphia were talking about him, through his club-record transfer to RB Salzburg and excellence with the national team, Aaronson keeps ascending. Now, he’s set to play a starring role for his country in October.

“It’s advice I’d always give him: Be so good that the coach can’t take you off the field,” said Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin.

Seems like Aaronson took that bit of guidance to heart.

There’s something about Aaronson that just seems pure. His longing for a chocolate chip cookie as his vice fits well within his vibe and his game reflects it, too.

Aaronson is a quintessential modern attacker, caring as much about his defensive duties and touchline-to-touchline disruption as gliding around and making plays for highlight reel fodder. His slight frame can be disarming, shaggy hair tamed slightly by a headband and lovable little brother demeanor make him easy to root for. Those outward traits cloak his inward killer competitive streak – his favorite moment of his “dope” Champions League foray, as he put it, wasn’t the fact he scored 10 minutes into their clinching qualifying return leg at Brondby, but it was the silencing effect his goal had on a ravenous Danish crowd.

He’s had a knack for that, be it in Honduras with the national team or his early days in Philadelphia.

“Look, I’m not an emotional person, I’ve probably cried like twice in my life,” said Curtin, a hardened lifelong Philly guy. “But I felt the tears start to well up when he scored that goal against Atlanta on his debut and then ran over to me. That was the moment for me when I was like, ‘This kid has it.’”

That debut goal was early in 2019. He quickly wrestled a starting spot from the club’s highest-paid player, then was named to MLS Best XI in 2020 as he helped lead the Union to their first-ever trophy. That form earned a transfer to RB Salzburg, which could reach $9m, a similar figure Salzburg paid for Erling Haaland.

“Sometimes we over-coach. When players are special, sometimes it’s better to give a little bit of information then get the hell out of the way,” Curtin said. “You know what I mean?”

Perhaps the air of purity around Aaronson comes from the pillars in his life. The wonderkid routinely points to his parents, grandparents and siblings as the perfect support staff, as well as Curtin and his brief time with Jesse Marsch at Salzburg before the American took over at RB Leipzig this summer.

Brenden Aaronson scores for RB Salzburg in August&#x002019;s Champions League play-off against Brondby.
Brenden Aaronson scores for RB Salzburg in August’s Champions League play-off against Brondby. Photograph: Michael Molzar/Getty Images

Aaronson’s dad runs Real Jersey FC, a youth club part of the MLS Next academy structure. Brenden is a bit of a mama’s boy too, which has made living alone challenging. Instead of doing it at a freshman dorm at Indiana University, where he committed to play soccer before signing his professional contract, he was doing it in Salzburg.

The soccer was easy. He had some natural doubt, as is custom for any life-changing move, but like every other on-field level up, he rose to the challenge immediately. He excelled in his first training sessions then scored in his first friendly a few days later. He ensconced himself onto the teamsheet straight away.

But setting up wifi, laying out a living space, setting up a gaming chair and cooking? That’s his Mount Everest.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I do not like cooking at all,” Aaronson said with a laugh. “Man, I tried.”

Maybe that’s the only challenge Aaronson has met, but not immediately exceeded over the last year.

Aaronson has been handed a more centralized role with Salzburg this year, both in the literal positional sense and in the hierarchy of the team after another crop of talents were transferred to bigger clubs this summer. That fate is almost certainly his destiny sooner rather than later, perhaps following Marsch to RB Leipzig in the future.

“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance,” Curtin said. “He has a real belief in himself, but he never comes across thinking he’s better than the level. He has great self-awareness. It’s like a lost art. People think they’re way better than they are, but Brenden has none of that. He wants to learn, he asks questions.”

Staying grounded and being desperate to improve has paid off. As the USMNT head into the October international break with three crucial World Cup qualifying matches without stars Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, Aaronson is expected to play a central role. Little brother no more. Get that man a cookie.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy few years or however long it’s been,” Aaronson said. “I have no words. I just want to get better.”