“I had like... ten shots at least. So I need to score them.”
A brief pause.
“I could have had a hat trick.”
That's how Brenden Aaronson responds when I ask him what stood out to him about his play when Bethlehem Steel walloped Atlanta United II 4-1 last Sunday. I had already asked Aaronson about the goal he scored (“I kind of readjusted my body and put it in with my left foot”) and the one he set up (“Chambo [Steel captain James Chamberlain] and I have a pretty good connection”) so I'm looking for something small that I might have missed but that the 17-year old, who was named to the USL Team of the Week, noticed.
His response is not cocky; it's honest, and perhaps a little rueful. As much as he did to tear apart Atlanta, Aaronson put himself in positions to do even more.
This is unsurprising to those who have watched Aaronson's development. He plays with intensity at all times, and his speed of thought is remarkable. “His intelligence and awareness is something that you don't see in most 17-year olds,” Steel assistant coach and Philadelphia Union academy U19s head coach Kevin Coleman told me. “His ability to find space, read the game, pick his head up, he almost slows things down and makes it look easy.”
Perhaps even more impressive: the teenager was a key part of the early high press that tore apart Atlanta's buildup play. As part of the Atlanta United ecosystem, ATL II desperately wants to play out of the back. But Steel's front three — Aidan Apodaca, Union winger Marcus Epps, and Chris Nanco — were too fast and organized for the visitors and continually pressed the back line effectively. As the attacking midfielder, Aaronson was responsible for reading the first wave of pressure and stepping in to ensure Atlanta could not play around it with a simple pass.
“I'm just looking to interrupt how they can get out, you know?” Aaronson says. “If the center back gets it, I'm trying to not let him get an easy ball out. He either has to clear it or make a good play around me.”
Then, without taking a beat, he adds: “It just has to be that way.”
Combine the beautiful skill — Aaronson can already weight a throughball like a seasoned playmaker — and the high workrate, add in a lithe frame and positional intelligence? Quite a player by any standard. But that last sentence stands out: It just has to be that way.
It is not a thoughtless phrase, a way to move past an idea without critically evaluating it. Instead, Aaronson recognizes that for the Union's system to work, pressing must be a coherent team activity. When the front three close down the ball and the nearest passing options, that often leaves another more dangerous lane. And the Union U19 player needs to be ready to close down that pass or the man who receives it. It really does need to be that way for the system to work.
It's not just the phrase itself, but the certainty with which Aaronson says it that drives home why the teenager, who moves like a waterbug — and make no mistake, that's a high compliment — across the pitch, is a leading light in an academy brimming with talent. “[He]'s a kid that's been a part of our project from day one," Coleman says. "He came up through juniors, up through all the age groups of the academy. And the biggest thing for him that you continually see over and over again is his determination and his mindset.”
Earlier this year, a broken collarbone threatened to derail this entire season and set Aaronson back during a crucial phase in his development. “And then it's almost like nothing really phases him,” Coleman recounts. “He rested, he did what the doc said, and he was right back into it.”
The skinny kid with a mop of curly hair was not only right back onto the pitch, he immediately resumed earning his teammates' trust. “He gets balls in tight spots and places that you wouldn't play most people into,” Coleman says, “And I think that's been the most positive thing is you see the guys trusting him in dangerous spots and giving him the ball.”
A team that plays the Union's style needs to have that trust in their creative hub to function. As Aaronson himself might say, for he and his club to succeed it just has to be that way.