In most years, the game at the end of the U.S. men’s national team’s January training camp doesn’t mean much. And for most people, this year’s edition was no different -- as evidenced by the sparse crowd that showed up for it Saturday in suburban Los Angeles.

But for the Union, the game mattered. Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie became the first Union academy products to play for the senior U.S. national team. They were two of seven young Americans who earned their first national team caps in the 1-0 win over Costa Rica. Aaronson started and played 66 minutes; McKenzie was a substitute in the 63rd.

“That’s something that very few players achieve, and they’ve done it now at the age of 20 and below,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday on a conference call from preseason camp in Clearwater, Fla. “I’m just really happy for them and their growth and development.”

Indeed, McKenzie is 20 and Aaronson is 19. And Curtin knows the rarity of the achievement: for all he did as a pro in MLS, he never made it to the national team.

Both players are expected to be on the roster for next month’s Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament, and they’re candidates to go to Tokyo if the Americans make it. The step after that will be to continue developing, and continue earning opportunities with the senior team.

Union fans with long memories will recall that after Jack McInerney made the 2013 U.S. Gold Cup squad, he never got back to the national team -- and he never fully re-captured the goal-scoring form that got Jurgen Klinsmann’s attention.

McKenzie and Aaronson undoubtedly have higher ceilings. But the story is still worth telling, as a reminder that success and stature won’t just be handed over. The players have to earn it, and Curtin also has a role to play in developing them.

“The comparisons to Jack are fair, having such success at a young age,” Curtin said. “Brenden and Mark right now are going to have the consistency of being starters for the Philadephia Union [and] most liklely going to the Olympics and playing in those games... For them to make their debuts for the full national team really separates them. All young players go through highs and lows, but the future, the ceiling for those two, is very high."

Curtin also has to figure out how to line up his team when McKenzie and Aaronson are gone. He has an answer for the former: new signing Jakob Glesnes, who has made a good impression in his first days with the team.

“Jakob has come in and brought a real level of professionalism," Curtin said. "He’s brought quality right away and I’m really happy with him, and while it’s only been a few days, he’s getting more and more integrated with his teammates.”

New Union centerback Jakob Glesnes shaking hands with manager Jim Curtin in a practice session at the team's preseason training camp in Clearwater, Florida.
Philadelphia Union
New Union centerback Jakob Glesnes shaking hands with manager Jim Curtin in a practice session at the team's preseason training camp in Clearwater, Florida.

Making up for Aaronson will be trickier. Jamiro Monteiro, Anthony Fontana and Ilsinho can all be the lead playmaker, and Monteiro probably will be a lot.

You’re excused, though, if you wonder whether the Union might need just a little more firepower in attacking midfield. And when Curtin talks about the team still shopping for new players -- as he did Tuesday -- you’re excused if you wonder whether that’s where they’re looking.

Asked what positions the team is shopping for, Curtin kept his cards close.

“A couple different positions that I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “We’re still actively looking to upgrade, for sure -- we have some serious cap space available, and we have some roster spots available. So we’re going to continue to explore options all the way through this time."