The latest milestone for soccer’s growth in Philadelphia officially arrived Thursday, when Medford’s Brenden Aaronson signed a deal to join Leeds United of the famed English Premier League on July 1.
Leeds paid approximately $30 million to acquire the 21-year-old from Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg, the club that bought Aaronson from the Union in late 2020. Salzburg paid the Union $6 million at the time and offered a further $3 million in performance incentives, all of which were met.
In that deal, the Union also secured the rights to 10-20% of the transfer fee from Aaronson’s next move, depending on the fee’s size. A source with knowledge of the deal confirmed that the Union’s cut of Leeds’ purchase will be around $5 million.
This means that the Union have earned $14 million in revenue so far for a player who joined the club’s youth academy as a 10-year-old.
Aaronson went to Shawnee High School for his freshman year, then moved to the Union’s soccer high school in Wayne. He quickly flourished there and debuted for the Union’s reserve team in July of 2017 as a 16-year-old amateur.
At one point, Aaronson committed to the University of Indiana. But it didn’t take long for everyone involved to see his ceiling was far higher than that.
In the summer of 2018, the Union signed Aaronson to a pre-contract to move to MLS in 2019. And in his first game in the big leagues, he scored a spectacular long-range goal past Atlanta United and U.S. national team veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
Since then, Aaronson has enjoyed one of the fastest ascents of any American men’s soccer player on the planet. He spent two years with the Union, helping the team win its first trophy in 2020. Then he spent a year and a half with Salzburg that included 13 goals, 15 assists in 66 games and a run to the round of 16 in this season’s UEFA Champions League — the world’s most prestigious club soccer competition.
A star is made
Leeds pursued Aaronson for months, even before American manager Jesse Marsch — who led Salzburg when Aaronson moved there — was hired in late February. But Salzburg kept Aaronson so it could give its best effort in that round of 16 series, where it faced German superpower Bayern Munich.
Aaronson also has thrived with the U.S. national team, playing 18 times since his debut in February 2020. He featured in the Americans’ first 11 World Cup qualifiers, scoring two goals and assisting another, before missing the last three with a minor injury.
The Union knew of Leeds’ interest well before the word got out in the global media. Union manager Jim Curtin is a longtime close friend of Marsch’s; Union sporting director Ernst Tanner used to work at Salzburg; and Brenden’s younger brother, Paxten, also came through the Union academy. At 18, Paxten is a regular contributor off the Union’s bench and has an equally high ceiling.
“Couldn’t be more happy for the Aaronson family, for Brenden, for Jesse, for the great work that Salzburg did, obviously for the great deal that Ernst Tanner made for our club,” Curtin said. “A monumental day, not just for the parents and family, but for the Union, for our academy, for the work that goes on there. And obviously the dollars behind it, too, are impressive.”
Now Marsch and his former pupil will reunite on another of the soccer world’s biggest stages. No domestic league on the planet has more glitz, glamour, and attention than the English Premier League, thanks in part to the billions of dollars Philadelphia-based Comcast has paid to broadcast games in the United States.
You’ll see Aaronson play on some of this country’s biggest TV channels, including broadcast networks NBC and Telemundo. And he’ll play against some of the world’s most famous teams, such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool (of which he’s long been a fan), Chelsea, and Arsenal.
Leeds has a history that rivals those giants, with three English league titles in its trophy case. The club’s ravenous, us-against-the-world fanbase would look familiar to Philadelphians. So would the fact that Leeds is a one-team city, unlike London, Liverpool, and Manchester.
But Leeds’ recent past hasn’t been great. After reaching the Champions League semifinals in 2002, the club collapsed into financial insolvency in 2007 and fell to England’s third tier. The team finally returned to the Premier League in 2020, and this year barely avoided relegation with a win on the season’s final day.
If Leeds had gone down, Aaronson’s move likely wouldn’t have happened. Nor would fellow American Tyler Adams (who’s also close with Marsch) and the Union’s Kai Wagner have stayed in the rumor mill after recent speculation.
The long-term significance
With Marsch’s team safe, the Union can cash the huge check for which they’ve hoped.
Securing sell-on fees for players who move abroad is a big part of the Union’s long-term strategy: Sign young players from the academy or abroad, develop them here, then sell them for big sums that can become even bigger sums after future moves.
“Winning is still priority number one … but within that, we want to win games and we want to also sell top players to Europe,” Curtin said. “And with that, young players are going to look at us and say, ‘We want to come there, we want to be developed, we want to move on when the time is right, play for the national team.’ These are all good things, and I think it paints our club in a positive light.”
» READ MORE: What to know about Paxten Aaronson's potential
On top of all this, the $30 million transfer fee paid by Leeds is the second-highest fee ever paid for an American player. It trails only the $73 million Chelsea paid to sign Hershey’s Christian Pulisic from Germany’s Borussia Dortmund in 2019.
Yes, the two most valuable American men’s soccer players of all time hail from the greater Philadelphia area.
Count that as another feather in the Philly soccer scene’s cap, and get ready for a few more to be added soon. Aaronson and Pulisic will be key players in the U.S. men’s team’s four-game June campaign: Wednesday vs. Morocco in Cincinnati; June 5 vs. Uruguay in Kansas City, Kan.; June 10 vs. Grenada in Austin, Texas; and June 14 at El Salvador.
It’s a crucial stretch of preparation for this autumn’s World Cup, including the last home games on home soil before the tournament.
(Downingtown’s Zack Steffen won’t be there, though, as he withdrew from the squad due to a family matter.)
And on June 16, we’ll learn whether Philadelphia gets to add the biggest feather of all: hosting games in the 2026 men’s World Cup.
So consider this moment the starting gun for a soccer summer around here like there’s never been before.