Brenden Aaronson may not have been the biggest player on the Philadelphia Union’s roster, but it didn’t stop from having a breakout season in 2019.
The Medford, New Jersey native and Union Homegrown midfielder held a permanent spot in Jim Curtin’s starting lineup this season, totaling 30 appearances in MLS. He scored three goals and added two assists from both the No. 8 and No. 10 positions in midfield. As a 19-year-old player, who grew up supporting the club he’s now starting for, Aaronson credits his small stature growing up with helping him develop the toughness that has helped him adapt to the pro level.
“I was always a small kid, super skinny, so whenever I played up a level in the academy, I maybe wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to,” Aaronson told SBI. “It was tough for me 1-2 years playing wise. Being undersized taught me a lot and made me want to work harder on things that maybe I could take advantage of. Being small really helped my development and struggling for a little helped me become a better player in the long run.
“It’s kind of unheard of for a young kid like me to come and in and do what I did last season. It’s good now to have a break and reflect on the season and what we were able to achieve. Now I just have to start building off what I did well and practice what I need improvement on. I am excited for things to get rolling in 2020.”
Despite the club having several veteran options to call on in midfield, Aaronson gave Curtin a youthful presence and was rewarded with over 1,800 first-team minutes this season. Being able to pair Aaronson with the likes of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin just behind him, allowed the midfielder to roam freely and create chances for himself and his teammates.
Bedoya will return to the club in 2020, but Medunjanin is off to FC Cincinnati after being selected in the first stage of the MLS Re-Entry Draft. There is always some shuffling in every team’s roster in the offseason, but Aaronson credited both players for helping him learn plenty in 2019.
“Practicing with the older guys just helped so much, I was able to learn a lot just from watching them do what they do,” Aaronson said. “Haris was my role model, he was unbelievable to me this entire year. I can’t say enough about the guy, I’ll miss him a lot, but it’s MLS and guys are going to be moved from time to time.”
“I was always asking Haris and Alejandro questions and picking their brains to get better. Both are veteran guys, who have played in Europe and have that experience both in MLS and abroad. Being able to work with guys like that is an amazing experience.”
Aaronson is one of many young players on the Union’s roster who are seeking consistent minutes heading into 2020. Fellow Homegrown products Mark McKenzie and Matt Freese saw numerous starts last season, while Matt Real, Olivier Mbaizo, and Anthony Fontana remain options off the bench. After gaining the confidence of the coaching staff and his teammates, Aaronson credits MLS as a whole for giving young players a chance to prove their worth.
“It’s great now because MLS teams are starting to give kids chances, you saw it this year,” Aaronson said. “It’s definitely helping the league out, kids are showing what they are capable of and getting confidence from their coaching staffs and organizations. The Union are no exception to that, Jim [Curtin] will give you a chance if you work hard in training and do what the team asks of you. For any young player you just have to take your chance when it comes. It’s a big step for U.S. Soccer.”
Not only did Aaronson shine for the Union, but he gained more exposure on the international level. He played in the MLS Homegrown Game in July, finished as a finalist for the MLS Rookie of the Year award, and was rewarded with call-ups to both the U.S. Men’s National Team and USMNT U-23 squad for separate camps.
Although he did not appear in either of the September friendlies, Aaronson was able to experience in the senior team environment under first-year head coach Gregg Berhalter. Both teams could be a possibility for Aaronson heading into 2020 with Olympic Qualifiers for the U-23’s and Nations League matches for the USMNT coming up.
“It’s definitely an honor to represent your country and playing with the U-23’s and getting called into the senior team in the same season was just an amazing feeling,” Aaronson said “Being able to work with guys you looked up to like Michael [Bradley] was such a beneficial time. I’m riding with the moment right now and doing whatever I can to stay in there.”
“Being with the U-23’s, everyone there is just getting focused on Olympic Qualifying and what we need to do to get there. Sometimes we have new faces coming in so it’s about getting familiarized with those guys. Working with the senior team, Gregg was able to get me introduced to how they run things. Being able to work with real professionals was a great experience and something I will not take for granted. It opened up my eyes to what I need to do to be with that group on a consistent basis.”
The Union will be one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference to return to the postseason after a surprising 2019. Fafa Picault and Haris Medunjanin are two key losses to the roster already, while the club has yet to add any players this offseason. Aaronson knows the roster could still change by the opening week of training camp, but admits the team need to be just as competitive to be successful in 2020.
“As a whole we had a good team and everybody was close-knit, super comfortable with one another,” Aaronson said. “Age didn’t seem to matter at all and I think that was a huge factor for our success. Even on the training field we got after it every day and tried to get better with every session. I always say if you work hard, then you play well and that worked for us this season. We need to do more of that in 2020 if we want to take the next step forward and build off 2019.”
“I definitely want to play more games than I did last year and be on the field. I want to be a consistent player for the Union and be healthy for the season. Picking up my production for the team is going to be a huge goal for me this season and I can’t wait to see some new and old faces.”