One of the more difficult concepts to understand in professional soccer is the speed at which the game is played. Young players consistently point to the speed of the game as the aspect of pro soccer that is most difficult to adjust to as they make the leap to the top level.
It's important to be specific here -- MLS players are, overall, likely faster than those at lower levels of the game. But when you hear "speed of the game," you are hearing about how it feels to be out there trying to think when many of the other players on the field have been in the same situations so many times that they can operate by instinct. A top young player will often reach a point at which he or she is so comfortable at the U-19 level that they can consistently create enough space to pause and think. They move up and suddenly that ability is neutralized. Now what?
That was the question asked of Brenden Aaronson all preseason, and it's one that is likely driven home by Haris Medunjanin (a player that has seemed two thoughts ahead of his opponents throughout 2019) on a daily basis. Medunjanin has spoken this season about how his teenaged mentee doesn't shy away from the ball even after a mistake that might dent the confidence of other young players, and that attitude is an outcome of Aaronson's mentality -- there is no thinking in tight spaces, he already knows the options and acts accordingly.
As a result, the veteran members of the Union have quickly grown to trust their young teammate. You can ask a player about trust but they won't throw a teammate under the bus. So the best way to get to the truth is to watch how they play on the field.
And that's where you see it: Medunjanin, Jamiro Monteiro, Ale Bedoya -- they are all willing to play Brenden Aaronson in tight spaces, and then they move as if they expect him to retain the ball.
This was never more apparent than on Saturday night when the Union spent the entire match smothering one of the top teams in the Western Conference (to be fair, the Sounders came prepared to bunker and counter. To be honest, they never got past the first step of that plan). Philly poured on pressure and Seattle needed Stefan Frei to redeem himself for last season's giveaway to Fafa Picault by making a sensational stop on Kacper Przybylko in order to escape with a point.
Aaronson finished the match with four shots and four chances created as he operated out of both an attacking midfield role and, in the second half, as a tucked-in winger on the left. He completed 22 of 26 passes but, notably, his four incompletes included two into the penalty box, one into zone 14 atop the box, and a throughball that didn't find the mark. The teenager spent the match acting as an extra man in order to pull Seattle away from Monteiro and Medunjanin and give the Union's best playmakers space to pick their heads up.
For Aaronson, this made for a long night of checking into holes, receiving with his back to goal, and trusting his touch to connect as the Sounders closed on him with enough bodies to leave gaps elsewhere in the defense.
In the above video you can see both Medunjanin and Monteiro looking to play Aaronson even when he's tracked tightly. This is trust, and this is a young player that thinks so quickly that the speed of the game is -- not always, but often -- now accounted for in his mental calculus.
The skill has always been there for Brenden Aaronson, as has the intelligence. But, to be honest, it's often there for young players at every level but the last one.
Aaronson is different, and you don't have to trust your own eyes to know it. Just watch how his teammates treat him ten starts into his MLS career.