In different circumstances, Brenden Aaronson would have been one of the U.S. Under-23 men’s national team’s most important pieces on the treacherous road through Olympic qualifiers.
Just one year ago, with the U.S. gearing up for their push to Tokyo, the then-Philadelphia Union midfielder would have been the player to build around, the game-breaking playmaker tipped to guide the U.S. men towards their first Olympic games since 2008. Any U.S. gameplan would have cycled right through Aaronson, a player with skill and confidence on the ball far beyond his years.
But what a difference a year makes.
The U.S. U-23s are still on their path towards Tokyo, delayed by a year due to the coronavirus. As they march on through CONCACAF qualifiers, though, Aaronson is half a world away, now a key piece for the U.S. men’s national team stationed in Austria for a pair of upcoming friendlies against Jamaica and Northern Ireland.
In that year, Aaronson has grown from prospect to star, from Philadelphia Union youngster to RB Salzburg signing and, most importantly for this week, from U-23 hotshot to senior team contributor.
Last March, it was hard to imagine a U.S. U-23 team without Aaronson as its centerpiece. Now, it’s getting harder and harder to imagine a senior squad without the 20-year-old midfielder involved.
“I think it’s always good to just keep in contact with all the friends that you make over the years,” Aaronson says, having admitted that he tried his best and failed to stay up to watch the U-23s’ 4-0 win over the Dominican Republic on Sunday night. “That U-23 team was the first real national team I was a part of, so I made a lot of friendships there and I was at a lot of camps with them.
“I have friendships and I keep in touch. I’ve been following and they’ve been doing great with two wins, and it’s not easy to go to Mexico where it’s really hot and guys haven’t played a lot of games. It’s a lot of pressure on these guys and they’re doing fantastic.”
But, while the U-23s are thriving in Guadalajara, Aaronson is now gearing up for another chance with the USMNT as he looks to continue his meteoric rise for both club and country.
Having emerged as a star in MLS throughout the 2020 season, Aaronson made the move to RB Salzburg in January, where he has linked up with American manager Jesse Marsch. Under Marsch, Aaronson has thrived, scoring three goals and notching two assists in 13 matches across all competitions for the Austrian side.
The move to Austria was, admittedly, a big step for the 20-year-old midfielder, who emerged as a homegrown player with his local Philadelphia Union. Now an ocean away from his family in the midst of a pandemic, Aaronson says he has adjusted well. He regularly explores Salzburg’s countryside and takes bike rides around the city, which he says has a small-town feel.
And it’s not just off the field that Aaronson feels comfortable. He’s jumped straight into a squad that is routinely playing in the Champions League and is now a key part of their push for trophies this season. RB Salzburg currently sits atop the Austrian Bundesliga, seven points ahead of Rapid Wien, and is also set to take part in the finale of the OFB Cup.
“It’s my second home now,” Aaronson says. “Everything’s been going great and I think on the field getting to be able to play right off the bat is always a great thing. I can’t speak enough about Jesse, the staff there, the players, it’s just been great.
“And then coming into this camp, I think I have a lot of confidence, which is nice because I think I’ve been playing well. Now it’s just going from here and then coming into this camp but just doing what I can to help the team.”
This camp, which required just a three-hour car ride for the Austrian-based star, is Aaronson’s fourth. He’s earned two caps for the U.S. so far, and he scored his first international goal in a 6–0 rout of El Salvador in December.
The 20-year-old figures to be a key part of Gregg Berhalter’s team through these two friendlies as the USMNT will be without some big names in the midfield. Weston McKennie has been left in Turin to recover from some ongoing injuries, while Tyler Adams has pulled out of the squad in order to comply with local coronavirus regulations in Germany.
That leaves Aaronson as a likely starter in the central midfield, with the recently-committed Yunus Musah, MLS veterans Sebastian Lletget and Kellyn Acosta and youngsters Owen Otasowie, Luca de la Torre and Christian Cappis also in the squad.
Aaronson has the ability to play as No.10, a No.8 or out wide, although he has primarily featured on the left-hand side of a 4-4-2 under Marsch at Salzburg. With the U.S., though, he’s expected to slot in as a sort of box-to-box No.8 in Berhalter’s 4-3-3, giving the U.S. a valuable playmaker in the center of the field.
“The thing that I feel like I’ve grown dramatically in is my final third outcome,” Aaronson said. “I feel like, in the final third, I’m making the right decisions with RB Salzburg right now and I’m constantly getting in that position to make the final third pass.
“That’s something that will only help me with the national team because I’m going to get chances here to play that final pass, to score that final shot. It’s been helping me a lot with RB Salzburg, getting in these positions and then, finally, making the right decision, getting that goal or getting that assist.
“I just want to translate that here and then hopefully get a goal or assist throughout these games.”
Still just 20 years old, Aaronson still has a lot of growing to do, even if he has taken major strides throughout the last year. And, when and if the U.S. does take the field in Tokyo this summer, Aaronson may just be there to lead the U-23s once again in pursuit of an Olympic medal.
It’ll be a busy year for the U.S., with the Gold Cup and Nations League also scheduled out this summer and World Cup qualifying kicking off soon after. And, regardless of where Aaronson ends up this summer, he’ll almost certainly be a part of that qualifying run as the U.S. looks for that long-awaited return to the World Cup.
A year from now, the U.S. will know whether or not they’re heading to Qatar and, if Aaronson is any indication, even the best-laid plans can change in 12 months. But given the road ahead, it’s very possible that Aaronson’s year-long rise to the USMNT is only just the beginning, the initial days of a career just beginning to take off.
“I haven’t really seen myself doing what I’ve been doing the past three years. It just kind of comes,” he said. “You take it day by day and you focus on what you can do better, and that’s really what I’ve been thinking my entire life so far.
Source : goal.com