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SSFC Spotlight: Brenden Aaronson captures Austrian Cup

His first few months have been a success.

Jamaica v USMNT Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Red Bull Salzburg won this year’s edition of the Austrian Cup with a 3-0 victory over LASK. American midfielder Brenden Aaronson scored the match’s second goal, receiving the ball at the top of the box on the counter-attack and blasting his shot into the corner of the net. Since joining the club in January, the 20-year-old has featured in every match and been a regular contributor to the scoresheet. Throughout his career, he has met the expectations of each successive level from the academy to the big European transfer.

One of the “smallest guys on the field,” Aaronson joined the Philadelphia Union setup at the age of 10. His teenage years involved daily 90-minute trips to the YSC Academy and competing with the club’s reserve side, Bethlehem Steel, in the USL. He made 21 appearances in two seasons, impressing with his chance creation and work rate while fighting through a collarbone injury. The young midfielder would commit to the decorated Indiana University men’s soccer program, but his future clearly belonged in the professional game.

In September of 2018, the Union signed him to a Homegrown contract in advance of the 2019 season. “Brenden is a young kid that’s been in our academy for quite some time,” said manager Jim Curtin. “There’s always a possibility of him going to Europe. There [are] a lot of teams that were sniffing around for him at big clubs in Europe… [The] soccer IQ, he has that. He sees things early. He did at a young age to have to find solutions when he would play up against bigger, stronger kids.”

Aaronson made an instant impact, scoring in his debut match. In his first season, he made 30 total appearances, contributing three goals and one assist while finishing second in MLS Rookie of the Year voting. The teenager was praised for his agility, as well as being “very aware between the lines, able to give solutions offensively, and very secure on the ball.”

His second season showed improvement, particularly on the attack, possibly due to playing with better strikers. During the course of the COVID-shortened schedule, Aaronson contributed four goals and five assists in 27 matches across all competitions, leading the Union to the Supporters’ Shield. He was named to the MLS is Back Tournament Best XI and MLS Best XI. Only two years into his professional career, it was time to move to a bigger stage, with plenty of clubs attempting to sign the intelligent midfielder.

Despite interest from Barcelona and a host of other notable names, his transfer to Europe was relatively quick and tidy. In October of 2020, Salzburg was announced to have paid a $6 million fee with the potential for $3 million in easily achievable add-ons. “[He] is considered one of the greatest talents in the MLS, his dynamism and his presence on the field are extraordinary for a 19-year-old,” said sporting director Christoph Freund. “Despite his young age, he already has an excellent feeling for making the right decisions on the pitch. With his way of playing football, Brenden is a perfect match for us and we are already looking forward to him.”

Aaronson was immediately inserting into Jesse Marsch’s squad, thriving in the high pressure defending, vertically attacking style. In 21 appearances, he’s scored five goals and assisted on three more. In addition to the Austrian Cup, Salzburg will shortly claim its 15th Bundesliga title, capping another successful season. His adjustment to the new league surpassed all expectations. “He has developed incredibly well, but he did a lot better than I would have thought,” said the American manager.

His growth at the club level has been in tandem with consistent call-ups on various U.S. squads. Aaronson earned his first senior call up in his rookie season for the CONCACAF Nations League fixtures in 2019 but did not play. He made his debut in the 2020 January camp friendly against Costa Rica. His first goal came in the December 2020 6-0 victory over El Salvador, a somewhat lucky finish that took a deflection before finding the back of the net. Another goal in the recent match against Jamaica featured a well-timed run in behind the back line.

National team manager Gregg Berhalter has been strong supporter of Aaronson, looking to bring him into the squad as early as possible. “We really like to work with potential,” he said prior to the El Salvador friendly. “We like to get potential through the age and see what we can do with it. He’s an example of that… People thought he was going to have a hard time playing in MLS and he fit right in and did a really good job.”

A self-described “energetic central midfielder that loves to get forward” and is capable of shuttling, creating, and pushing to the wing, Aaronson is one of the most dynamic and versatile members of the American talent pool. He’s the prototypical Red Bull player, constantly applying pressure, always looking to push the attack forward, and highly intelligent in his understanding of the game. According to Breaking the Lines, the “ability to keep his head up while dribbling” enables him to “take advantage of the space that defenders leave” and “scan the field looking for teammates in a better position.”

His most visible strengths are ball control and playing in transition, both of which are aided by his solid decision making and “top-level agility.” Areas for improvement include increasing his touches, shooting more, and playing with his weaker left foot. As observed by Carlos Rivera of Total Football Analysis, his goals largely come from “the top of the penalty area” after “arriving into the space unmarked.” He is also an accurate passer, particularly in the final third and on long-range balls.

As a Salzburg player, a future transfer is expected, with the club rarely standing in the way of moves. Aaronson’s next step will be interesting, a crucial decision that somehow draws closer despite his European career having recently begun. He could stay in the Red Bull system and follow Marsch to Leipzig, where the American manager was recently hired. However, there will likely be several parties interesting in signing him, especially if his development continues to skyrocket. The national team is seemingly stocked with dynamic midfield prospects, but the Medford, New Jersey native who has drawn comparisons to Dominik Szoboszlai and Kai Havertz could be the most exciting of all.