These things happen so fast.
Just over one year ago, Mark McKenzie had just started his eighth game in a row after spending the majority of the year fighting injuries while regaining his infectious confidence. Brenden Aaronson, drenched and worn down after playing from behind for over 70 minutes, had watched from the bench as the player he was subbed off for evened the scoreline and helped the Union to their first-ever playoff win.
Both players had flashed potential, but praise was often couched with ‘yeah,buts’.
Aaronson: Smart, hard-working, yeah. But look at his size, but look at his final third production.
McKenzie: Silky on the ball, capable of running down wingers and defending in space, yeah. But he’s too short for a center back.
Outside of the Union, these were seen as limiting factors. Inside, they were seen as proof of mentality. Ernst Tanner has placed mentality firmly at the center of player development, but it has been part of the club’s makeup for as long as Jim Curtin has been manager.
And few American players embody mentality as a winning characteristic as well as Alejandro Bedoya.
So when Aaronson and McKenzie turned four months of waiting in 2020 into preparation for their coming out party in the MLS Is Back Tournament, Tanner, Curtin, Academy Director Tommy Wilson, and the rest of the Union staff were hardly surprised.
After all, Philly had moved on from Marco Fabian with Aaronson in mind, and Tanner had gone out and acquired a right-sided centerback in the offseason, a clear sign that he believed in McKenzie as that rare talent whose skill on the ball meant he could thrive as a right-footer on the left.
All that said, it’s still nice to get the national recognition.
Aaronson has turned into a unicorn — that rare American attacker that proves he can produce consistently before the age of 20. Even if he never becomes a final third force like super-unicorns Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, his game is so perfectly suited to the soccer being played at top clubs in Europe that he can rise as far as his focus and work take him.
Similarly, McKenzie has all the attributes to thrive in the modern game. While he leads the Union in blocks this year, he has the potential to control the game on a ball-dominant side that defends high up the pitch where height is de-prioritized and replaced by reading the game and moving the ball.
Aaronson and McKenzie are not just two of the best young players in MLS, they are also excellent fits for Gregg Berhalter’s style of play — patience out of the back paired with intelligent, space-driven runs from multi-faceted wide men.
And, most importantly, they take their chances. That, in the end, is what mentality boils down to: When the bell rings, do you still play your game? Do you remember what to do when, and execute at the speed required?
Welcome to the future you were promised: Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie are two of the three best young players in Major League Soccer because the Union believe in giving chances to young players, and because they focused on players that would be resilient, fearless, and motivated by team success as much as their own.
They dreamed of playing for the Philadelphia Union, and they still dream of holding trophies aloft for the club.
They rep the city, the people of the city, and the attitude of the city.
Go ahead — tell them they can’t get even better. Then sit back and watch.
This is just the beginning.