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The dream has come true for Brenden Aaronson, with Leeds United and the U.S. men’s soccer team

The Medford native is a near-lock to make the U.S. World Cup team, and he is now one of the squad's biggest names thanks to his move to England's Premier League.

Brenden Aaronson (right) works out with with Hershey's Christian Pulisic at Monday's U.S. men's soccer team practice.
Brenden Aaronson (right) works out with with Hershey's Christian Pulisic at Monday's U.S. men's soccer team practice.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff

CINCINNATI — A week and a half ago, Brenden Aaronson was sitting in a café in Vienna, Austria, with his girlfriend. He was a nervous wreck, but romance had nothing to do with it.

Aaronson wasn’t just watching Leeds United try to avoid relegation from England’s Premier League on the season’s final day. His dream $30 million move to Leeds from Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg was contingent on Leeds staying up.

It was easy to reflect on this on Monday, in the Medford native’s first meeting with U.S. media since the deal was done. That night in Vienna, though, was anything but easy.

“I’m sitting there sweating and pacing around the cafe,” Aaronson said. He excused himself to go to the restroom a few times while his girlfriend kept watching.

Finally, the tension was gone. Leeds won, and the next day Aaronson flew to England to have medical exams and sign the transfer paperwork. After watching from afar for months, he finally got an in-person taste of the city’s passion for one of England’s most famous clubs.

» READ MORE: Brenden Aaronson joins the Premier League’s Leeds United for $30 million, including $5 million for the Union

“Football is a way of culture there; it’s huge for them,” he said. “The fans, they’re amazing, and they’re always going to support you. It’s tough, the media and stuff like that, but that’s something I’m ready for, and I want to challenge myself mentally and physically.”

Aaronson noted, too, that he knows Leeds fans “celebrate a tackle like a goal. And I’m going to be that guy that’s not only going to be the creative outlet … I’m going to be the guy that’s going to be working hard, too, and that’s what Leeds is.”

Hold on a minute. A rabidly-supported team that fuels a devoted sports town where fans love defense as much as offense, and have an us-against-the-world chip on their shoulder?

Doesn’t that sound a little familiar?

“Yeah, it does,” Aaronson said. “Being a Philly fan growing up, it seems a lot similar. The Eagles fans, the Phillies fans, the Union fans, they love this about their teams. It’s something I grew up with, and it’s the player that I am.”

» READ MORE: Downingtown’s Zack Steffen withdraws from the USMNT’s June games

From Medford to global fame

He is also now officially a star. Aaronson, 21, is a near-lock to make the U.S. World Cup team, and this month he’s on the cover of World Soccer magazine — one of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious publications.

(Along with, of course, the front page of The Inquirer’s sports section.)

All this for a player who started out in MLS just three years ago, and has only been in Europe for a year and a half. It’s been said often, but it’s still true: Perhaps no American player on the planet has had a faster rise to the top than Aaronson.

“Of course I’ve played a few years now, but I feel like I’m still in the beginning and I feel like I have so much to do,” he said.

He knows, though, how much hype comes with that $30 million check — the second-biggest transfer fee in American soccer history.

“Seeing the number just kind of go up and go up was crazy,” Aaronson said. “That’s why I’m grateful for Leeds, because they value me like this, and they think that I can be a big player in the future and a big player for them now. So for me, it’s a surreal feeling, and a surreal feeling playing in the Premier League for such a big, big club.”

It is not, however, intimidating him — or at least not yet.

“Christian [Pulisic] had a big transfer fee, and a lot of these guys have all over the world,” Aaronson said. “Everybody has to deal with this kind of stuff, so it’s not like I can’t. I believe in myself, and I believe I can be worth that, and I can help Leeds.”

» READ MORE: Christian Pulisic provided the defining moments of World Cup qualifying for the USMNT

The context for those words goes beyond Pulisic’s $73 million move from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea in 2019. Aaronson watched many fellow Salzburg alumni go through similar travails.

Right before Aaronson arrived, playmaker Domonik Szoboslai went to Germany’s RB Leipzig for $24.2 million. Last summer, striker Patson Daka went to England’s Leicester City for $33 million. This summer, striker Karim Adeyemi is heading to Germany’s Borussia Dortmund for $41 million.

Still, wasn’t a coincidence that Aaronson mentioned Pulisic specifically.

As a prospect, the Medford native looked up to the Hershey native. Aaronson drew laughs from the media on Monday when he called Pulisic “a living legend in Pennsylvania at the time,” even though Pulisic wasn’t old enough to drink yet.

Now a new era of young players in Philadelphia aspires to emulate Aaronson — including his younger brother Paxten, one of the Union’s new young stars.

“It’s crazy to think that I was one of the first ones to leave the Philadelphia Union and go to Europe, and Mark [McKenzie] was too,” Aaronson said. “We want to be that model for the Philadelphia Union academy. You can see now, if you watch the games, all these kids are getting chances, and they’ll continue to get chances, and it’s only going to grow from here.”

» READ MORE: Paxten Aaronson, the Union's latest phenom, keeps up a family tradition

Strong support back home

Paxten is one of many family members and close friends in Brenden’s inner soccer circle. Along with their parents, Rusty and Janell, Brenden’s longtime girlfriend has her own soccer chops: Milana D’Ambra is a forward on Temple’s women’s team.

They play one-on-one games from time to time, and he confessed she has nutmegged him — the term for kicking the ball through an opponent’s legs — a few times.

“She’s gotten me pretty good sometimes,” he said. “We have a great relationship and she supports me and she’s amazing. And yeah, it’s just cool that we can do things like that.”

Nor is Milana the only D’Ambra who knows the sport. Longtime Philly-area soccer fans know of her father, Don, who played and coached for the old Kixx for nearly 15 years, and now leads the men’s team at St. Joseph’s.

“I not only have my dad, I have her dad now, and he’s amazing,” Aaronson said. “He’s given me so much feedback, he’s really supportive me, and I’m grateful for that relationship, too.”

There is much for Aaronson to be grateful for, from his family to his coaches to the move of his dreams. Now the time is coming to see just how many soccer fans around the world are grateful for him.

» READ MORE: Megan Rapinoe hails ‘a huge step forward’ in U.S. Soccer’s national team equal pay deals