Forever Faithful: Big things come in undersized packages

Tommy Wilson can tell the story of Brenden Aaronson’s rise to the Philadelphia Union first team as a fighter’s tale. Wilson saw Aaronson’s talent before he saw Aaronson’s struggle, and he saw the young man build gritty, determined mental fortifications to combat his physical limitations. At the academy, Aaronson’s intelligence and touch were clear to even the casual observer. Equally clear, though, was his slight build and the ease with which he could be eased off the ball in the tight spaces he fearlessly took up.

In 2018, while playing for Bethlehem Steel, Aaronson’s collarbone was cracked by a hard tackle, and when he returned later in the season, replays showed him getting clocked in the face as he released a pass that became an assist.

Coaches might tell you to confront your weaknesses through work, to turn them into strengths. But nobody can speed — or, for that matter, guarantee — the physical growing process.

Still, as Wilson watched Aaronson press his sub-100 pound frame against the same wall so many young standouts hit as they speed down a road that they assume can only lead to stardom, the Union academy director had faith.

Like Wilson, Union head coach Jim Curtin, and team captain Alejandro Bedoya, Aaronson’s most impressive trait was his fearlessness in the face of more preternaturally talented opponents. While that fearlessness may be, subtly, the most important marker of a successful athlete, it poses a problem for those that possess it without also possessing prototypically impressive physical characteristics. Partly, this is because it truly is difficult for a player that builds their game primarily on guile and intellect to survive the punishing doled out to them by the more physically imposing.

But the other barrier is more complex: It’s one of faith.

For a coach or a scout, promoting a player with immense physical tools is relatively low risk. If they don’t succeed, you can absolve yourself, saying, ‘If they had the right mindset…”

Throwing your lot in with Aaronson, however, requires that a far more difficult bet on that mindset itself to develop. And while physical development is relatively simple to track, mental development is another beast — invisible, emotional, idiosyncratic — entirely. Has the player really hit the ‘big test’ that pushes them to the limit yet? Have they really pushed past the point at which self-doubt suggests leaving the tight, central, and impossibly-difficult-to-occupy areas for the more forgiving, spacious wings? Will they succumb to the anxiety inherent in realizing, with startling and sudden certainty, that you are now but one genius among many?

Wilson, Curtin, Ernst Tanner, and the rest of the Union organization were rewarded this season for their faith in Aaronson. Fans remained faithful for ten seasons, always hopeful and desperate for the postseason win that was finally, thrillingly delivered, but the extent to which that reward was delivered by an academy that was willing to place bets on mentality and persistence even as the short-term pressure to win mounted.

Aaronson, charitably described as wiry even as he begins to reach his full height, is easy to pin up as a poster child for the club’s faith in thoughtful and determined prospects. Yet the other homegrown that started both playoff matches is another, if less straightforward, example. Mark McKenzie, with broad shoulders that almost force the, ‘built like a linebacker’ comparison and the kind of easy speed top sprinters show off in qualifying races, is often dinged for lacking the requisite height showcased by a prototypical central defender. While fellow homegrown standout Auston Trusty looks the part, McKenzie is constantly fighting against the perception that he can’t control the aerial portion of box defending.

McKenzie, like Aaronson, has hit The Wall. After a stunning rise to prominence in 2018, the young defender drifted down from a national team call-up to an extended period out of the Union lineup. It took a rough patch of form from Trusty and Aurelien Collin’s failure to lock down the position to give McKenzie another look-in.

The Union’s best run all season followed, and DC United, Atlanta, and LAFC all left Talen Energy Stadium licking their wounds. McKenzie was immense; he and Jack Elliott held a high line against Josef Martinez and then did it two weeks later against Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. Perhaps most impressively, McKenzie was never cowed by mistakes and controlled his box with anticipation and positioning in lieu of size.

In sports, faith is often considered as a feature of the fan-club relationship, or in the context of how an athlete thinks of him or herself. For the Union, faith in the club’s ability to gain a competitive edge through player development has been a constant over the past few seasons.

That philosophy and the extent of the club’s faith in it is most easily brought into focus by two events. First, a January trade that sent every single SuperDraft pick to FC Cincinnati in a move Ernst Tanner justified by pointing to the qualitative difference in the amount and granularity of data the club had on academy players in comparison to college players.

And second, the starting lineup Jim Curtin named for the Union’s first home playoff match since 2011, which featured teenaged Brenden Aaronson and not superstar Marco Fabian.

But in between those two moments, that faith, and the breadth of decisions it influences, was always on display if you knew where to look. There was Cory Burke’s rise from Bethlehem Steel standout to opening day MLS starter, or Matt Real and Anthony Fontana’s impressive cameos against Orlando City, or Matt Freese’s inclusion in gameday 18s over Carlos Coronel.

It was also there in McKenzie, a player that earned his stripes with a smooth confidence, was shaken by the injuries that derailed what promised to be a hugely important season, and put in the work to etch his name into the lineup — on the left, no less — when it mattered most.

And it was there in Aaronson, a kid that was knocked down more than Rocky and, each time, returned to the fight just as ferociously as the legendary character that embodies, still, a Philadelphia mentality.

A consistent feature of Philadelphia Union’s strategy over the past few seasons, however, has been an unshakeable faith in its academy and the ability to develop a competitive edge through development.

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