‘The Medford Messi’: USMNT star Aaronson proving Champions League class at Salzburg

Brenden Aaronson Champions League GFXGetty/GOAL

As most nicknames do, Brendan Aaronson's moniker started off as something a bit tongue in cheek.

'The Medford Messi', he was called as he began his rise with the Philadelphia Union. Just a smooth-dribbling teenager at the time, the nickname was given to Aaronson to mark his status as being a potential star of the future from a New Jersey township of around 25,000 people.

And what hope he provided, as Aaronson rapidly became one of the brightest young stars in MLS during his time with his local club.

His rise also saw him take up a key role with the U.S. men's national team and, ultimately, a move to Red Bull Salzburg, one of European soccer's best stepping-stone clubs with a reputation for developing the likes of Sadio Mane and Erling Haaland.

But comparisons to Messi? Get a grip. At age 21, Aaronson's career is just getting started, and he is less than a year-and-a-half into his European career.

Aaronson still has a lot to accomplish if he wishes to be compared to the game's best, let alone Messi, perhaps the greatest player to ever play. Hundreds of players have been compared to the Paris Saint-Germain forward in recent years, and exactly zero have come close to reaching the level of the Argentine icon.

But while Aaronson will likely never reach the levels of the man he is being compared to, he is already matching records held by the Barcelona legend while forging his own reputation as a Champions League star.

On Tuesday, Aaronson will lead Salzburg into their Champions League last-16 second leg against Bayern Munich in a tie that still very much looks like David vs Goliath.

For all of their skill in developing stars of the future, Salzburg are certainly facing an opponent of a different caliber in Bayern, a perennial favorite and one of the most dominant teams in the world today.

But, after one leg, Salzburg have plenty of reason to believe. The Austrian champions led for nearly 70 minutes in the first meeting before conceding late in a 1-1 home draw with the German giants, giving them at least a little bit of hope heading to the Allianz Arena.

That hope, though, may just depend on Aaronson, who put in a reputation-defining performance in the first leg, and will likely need a repeat to see Salzburg topple Julian Nagelsmann's side.

In that first leg, Aaronson was unplayable, assisting Chukwubuike Adamu for Salzburg's goal while putting Bayern on the backfoot several times. Truth be told, he should have had several more assists, as Salzburg very easily could have walked away with a win by multiple goals.

On the night, Aaronson did something no one his age has done since Messi was breaking through. Against Bayern, the 21-year-old created five chances, becoming the youngest player to create that many in a Champions League match since Messi, who did the same against Celtic back in 2008 as a 20-year-old starlet.

Pretty good company, huh?

As such, those comparisons are not looking quite as outlandish, as Aaronson is beginning to look like a player that could - and should - play at the highest level. Not some day or eventually, but now.

With the USMNT, Aaronson solidified his spot as a key player in 2020, and was arguably the team's Most Valuable Player last year. At club level, meanwhile, Aaronson has adjusted quickly to life in Europe, with 12 goals in 55 appearances for Salzburg so far, including two goals in this season's Champions League.

You can count one of Messi's former team-mates among those impressed, as Thierry Henry has been singing Aaronson's praises for years.

"I like him a lot," Henry said on CBS. "I came across him a lot when I was coach of Montreal. He killed us with the Philadelphia Union.

"His activity, the way he sees the game. I'm a big fan of him, and I'm not surprised to see how well he's doing with Salzburg.

“He's contagious the way he plays, his energy. His intensity is second to none and he could have scored (versus Bayern). He supports the team. He's a good player. I always thought he was going to be a player. He's still learning. Let's not get carried away.”

And it is not just Henry who has been impressed, as the rest of Europe is taking notice if a recent raft of transfer rumours are anything to go by.

The most prominent are linking Aaronson to Leeds United, where he would reunite with fellow American Jesse Marsch, who originally brought the ex-Union star to Europe at Salzburg.

But those links began even before Marsch was brought in, as Leeds clearly see Aaronson as a star of the future.

A move to Elland Road would certainly depend on Leeds remaining in the Premier League, but they are not the only club being linked with Aaronson.

Italian giants AC Milan are said to be interested, with Aaronson also linked with a move to the German Bundesliga, a league that is already home to plenty of young Americans. One potential landing spot could be RB Leipzig, given the relationship between them and Aaronson's current club.

More offers will surely come, too, if Aaronson can help Salzburg pull off the impossible against Bayern.

“It’s a dream come true to play on the biggest stage," Aaronson told CBS after the first leg. "And to get a result like we did, 1-1, and to think that we could have held out and win the game is amazing.

“I think for us it was just about counterattacking. We got the ball in behind and we countered really well. We were great and we have to continue to do that. Bayern are a tough team to play against with the ball, so we are going to continue to work on it and be ready for the next leg.”

The Champions League is where reputations are made, and Aaronson is quickly earning one as a big-game player. His stock would soar even higher with another standout performance against Bayern, especially if he somehow guides Salzburg into the quarter-finals.

If that does happen, there is a chance he may face off against the man who inspired his nickname, as 'The Medford Messi' looks to make more dreams come true far, far away from his hometown.

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