Brenden Aaronson: The 'U.S. Havertz' set to swap MLS for Europe's top leagues
When asked about transfer rumours, especially those surrounding young players, most coaches turn towards cliches and management speak.
They will say that the player in question is fantastic, a key part of the team, one that the club is hoping to hold onto for a long time. It is a tactic used to avoid headlines and alleviate any doubts regarding a player's future.
But, after the Philadelphia Union's MLS is Back quarter-final win over Sporting Kansas City last Thursday, head coach Jim Curtin did not use those tactics to describe the future of Brenden Aaronson, a player recently described by Bild as the "U.S. Havertz" amid links to the Bundesliga.
Instead, Curtin's words reflected a message that has become painfully obvious in recent weeks: enjoy him while you can.
"When some players tend to shrink in big occasions, he tends to raise his level and then raise his game," Curtin said after watching the 19-year-old provide his third assist of the tournament. "So I don't know how long I'll get to coach him for, how much longer, but I'm going to enjoy every day."
It has been a rapid rise for the midfielder, who only made his Union debut last season.
Barely a year-and-a-half into his MLS career, the talented teenager has already earned links to several Bundesliga clubs including Borussia Monchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hoffenheim and Freiburg. Celtic, too, are said to be interested in Aaronson, and the links to Europe are unlikely to die down anytime soon.
The latest homegrown star off of the Union's suddenly-thriving assembly line, Aaronson has been part of the club's system for nearly a decade. In recent times, Curtin and the Union have ushered in a number of academy players, such as Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty, Matthew Real and Anthony Fontana, but Aaronson has established himself as the club's crown jewel.
Aaronson provided a goal in his first MLS start, a 1-1 draw with Atlanta United in March 2019, before almost instantly becoming a vital piece in a Union team that went on to seal a playoff spot. In his first MLS season, the midfielder scored three goals while providing two assists, earning his first U.S. men's national team call-up as a result.
But, as it turns out, his 2019 introduction was only a taste of what was to come. To start the 2020 campaign, Aaronson has taken a massive leap forward, despite knowing that European scouts are constantly paying attention.
If there is a moment that truly signalled Aaronson's rise, it was his assist against Sporting KC. Aaronson breezed past two defenders before completely opening up the opposition defence with a through-ball, finding Sergio Santos to create a goal from virtually nothing.
It was a pass that few midfielders in MLS can make, and he did so at 19. His efforts in Orlando have earned Aaronson plaudits from current and former players from around the league, with Chicago Fire forward CJ Sapong calling him a "star in the making", while USMNT legend DaMarcus Beasley hailed him as "silky".
Despite his age, Aaronson has a certain game intelligence, although that is sometimes overshadowed by his energy. At the moment, questions still linger over his permanent position, with most of those unknowns based around the fact that he is an ever-present part of everything the Union do.
Aaronson is frequently moving, with or without the ball, sometimes playing out wide, sometimes in a more box-to-box role and sometimes playing as a more modern No.10, albeit one that takes a bit more defensive responsibility than the traditional playmakers of years past.
“There's kind of been a debate about if I'm an eight or a 10, but I don't really see it,” he said in January. “I'm an eight-and-a-half, I guess you could say. Either or. It doesn't matter to me.”
It is because of those attributes that he earned comparisons to Havertz, even if he is still a long way from where the current Bayer Leverkusen, and perhaps future Chelsea, midfielder is today.
But that is the type of player Aaronson hopes to be: one that is involved in all facets of the game.
"I think from a young age probably [Luka] Modric is one of my favourite players in the position I play," Aaronson told ESPN. "I just love how smooth he is on the ball, he knows what he’s gonna do next. In the final third he’s the same kind of guy, in the final third he took a little bit to get where he was back at Tottenham.
"I liked Steven Gerrard when I was little - I'm a big Liverpool fan. I kind of go with every player and I like looking at what they bring to their game so I can bring it to mine."
Still, Aaronson is far from a finished product, and the thought of making the leap from the Union to Europe is still a daunting one. When that move does come, and it is inevitable, Aaronson will face a bigger test as he will look to join the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Giovani Reyna in contributing to a top team in Europe.
To get him to that level, Curtin says the club plans to push Aaronson into more attacking positions, and the midfielder says that the has been working "tirelessly" on his play in the final third. During the coronavirus-enforced quarantine, he frequently trained with his dad and brother every day, working on finishing and passing.
That training has paid off. In each of the Union's five matches during the MLS is Back Tournament, Aaronson has started as a 10, playing behind some combination of Santos, Ilsinho and Kacper Przybylko, and he has shone in that role as arguably the most impressive player throughout the competition.
"We've challenged him from last season to this pre-season to his time with Gregg Berhalter and the national team, to now the quarantine period, to get better at making the final ball, to get more goal-dangerous," Curtin said. "And he's really taken the next step.
"Everybody sees his work rate and ability to run and cover ground and cover distance. If he's going to make it as a No.10 at the very highest level, and that's the ultimate goal for him, he's going to do it by being a volume player, a player that's on the ball all the time. And he might make a mistake three-to-four times but he's coming again at full speed.
"So that's something he's worked hard on: His final pass, his through-balls, getting his shot off a little quicker in and around the box. He's taken big strides, but the Philadelphia Union, we're going to be greedy and push and demand more of him because he can play even better than he did tonight. We're going to continue to push Brenden because we see how much talent he has."
While Aaronson's development will eventually pay off for the Union financially, it will also be vital for the USMNT going forward.
Aaronson was called into his first camp last October ahead of Nations League matches against Cuba and Canada as Berhalter wanted to get a closer look at the up-and-coming midfielder. The teenager was then called into the annual winter camp, earning his first cap in a 1-0 win over Costa Rica.
He is likely to be a key figure as part of the USMNT's youth movement as the team heads towards World Cup qualifying. With players like Pulisic, Reyna, Timothy Weah and Jordan Morris able to play on the wing and Adams and McKennie serving as more defensive-minded midfielders, there is an opening for an attack-minded midfielder with the ability to open up a defence.
That could be Aaronson or it could be FC Dallas' rising star Paxton Pomykal, a player that also looks bound for Europe sooner rather than later.
"With Gregg, he's been great to me," Aaronson told ESPN. "At the camps I've been to with him, he's given me the information that I love hearing. I like being told straight up what I need to work on, what I need to get better at. Having talks with him throughout the camp, it goes a long way."
He added: "He sees me as an eight or a 10 in the system he has, so I'm going to keep working on that position to get better at that and see where it goes from there."
On Wednesday, Aaronson will face his latest test: an MLS is Back semi-final with the surging Portland Timbers. On the other side will be one of the best creative midfielders in MLS history in Diego Valeri, a player that continues to lead the Timbers as the club pushes for trophies.
Aaronson will not get many more chances at MLS glory. As rumours swirl and interest rises, Aaronson is not long for MLS. At this time next year, he may just be a Bundesliga up-and-comer and a USMNT regular.
"I think it's every kid's dream to go play in Europe and it's been mine for a long time," he said. "I would love to go play there but really right now my main thought is just playing with the team. And I really want to win this tournament.
"I’m a winner and for me winning this tournament would be huge getting the first trophy for the club and I'm super excited if we can do that and make the final."
The message is clear to MLS fans - enjoy Brenden Aaronson while you can.