CINCINNATI — As amazing as Brenden Aaronson’s star turn in the soccer world has been, this aspect of it feels especially amazing: It hasn’t even been 11 months since he left the Union to join Red Bull Salzburg.
In just that time, he has played 11 times for the U.S. national team, including in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals and all six World Cup qualifiers so far, with two goals and two assists in those games. If you were to rank the squad’s players by how much hype they’re getting, Aaronson would be up near the top.
Meanwhile, he has played four times in the UEFA Champions League (and twice in qualifying for it) for Salzburg, and twice in the Europa League; and 37 times in Austrian domestic competitions.
Again, this has all been in 10 months and change. And no, the native of Medford, N.J., doesn’t quite believe it either.
“To go back and think about it is just like crazy,” he told The Inquirer this week. “Going over it in my head, it just it makes no sense, almost, because it’s just been such an upward trajectory. And then also, I don’t really have time to think about it, you know, because then I’m always thinking about the next thing I want to do, the next thing I want to achieve, the next thing I want to do next.”
He is able, he said, to make sure he is “just being in the moment and enjoying every single day of playing the sport I love, and just enjoying where I am.”
But within that, Aaronson knows that the place he has gotten to is special. He is one of 12 American men in this season’s UEFA Champions League group stage, the biggest stage in global club soccer. And with a little help from a fortunate group draw, Salzburg is on the verge of reaching the round of 16 for the first time.
“When I went over to Europe, there’s always a little doubt, in which you maybe think to yourself, ‘Am I ready for this jump? Am I ready to go over and start over, and basically make a name for myself in the team?’” Aaronson said. “It’s crazy the impact that I’ve had there in just being able to play. I can’t say enough about the club in Red Bull Salzburg, too — I’ve been really fortunate to be set up in two amazing places. It’s really amazing, and two clubs [Salzburg and the Union] that really believe in me.”
As has been the case ever since Union sporting director Ernst Tanner was Salzburg’s top scout, the club sells its best prospects for huge transfer fees each summer. This year, that included two players with whom Aaronson had become close: forward Patson Daka (for $33 million to England’s Leicester City) and midfielder Mërgim Berisha (for $5.5 million to Turkey’s Fenerbahçe).
More importantly for Aaronson, American manager Jesse Marsch — who brought Aaronson to Salzburg after watching him play for close friend Jim Curtin — moved to Germany’s RB Leipzig, the top club in Red Bull’s global soccer conglomerate. So Aaronson had to mesh with new teammates and a new boss, Matthias Jaissle.
But he has done so quite well, passing the eye test in just about every game he plays. And he’s got great chemistry with a player who’s one of Europe’s hottest prospects, 19-year-old German striker Karim Adeyemi. He’ll be the next Salzburg product to command a big fee, likely from German powerhouses Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.
“He deserves the attention,” Aaronson said. “He’s an unbelievable player; he can do everything: he can run; he can shoot; he’s a winger-slash-striker. It’s really an awesome team that we have right now, and Karim is a baller and he deserves all the credit that he’s getting. And he’s an awesome guy, too. I’m happy for him, and we’ll see where he ends up going.”
Now Aaronson is set for a star turn in the biggest game of his career to date, the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying showdown with eternal rival Mexico on Friday at FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium (9 p.m., ESPN2, ESPN+, Univision 65 and TUDN).
With Christian Pulisic still not 100% recovered from an ankle injury suffered in the Sept. 8 World Cup qualifier at Honduras, there’s a very real possibility that Aaronson will start on the left wing against El Tri.
If that happens, or if Pulisic starts and Aaronson comes off the bench, it will be Aaronson’s first game against Mexico. And it will come in what is, for U.S. players and fans alike, the single biggest game the American men play outside of the World Cup itself.
“To be a part of the roster and to be a part of World Cup qualifying, it’s crazy,” he said. “If you were to say this, I think, that I’d be a part of this World Cup team and be having the impact that I’ve been having in a lot of the games — yeah, it’s really crazy. And it makes me speechless sometimes thinking about it.”
Those long, curly locks that flew up and down the left wing at Subaru Park and the Union’s practice fields in 2019 and 2020 are still there. But a player whom Union fans imagined would be forever young isn’t so young anymore. He turned 21 this summer, and is now in his third year as a pro.
Those locks are a bit shorter now, though, and a bit more refined. (You can afford a higher-end barber when you’re playing in the Champions League.)
Aaronson’s personality, though, is still as homespun and down-to-earth as ever. And much like fellow South Jerseyan Carli Lloyd — who now lives in the same Medford neighborhood as Aaronson’s parents — Brenden plans to keep it that way for however long he gets to be a globetrotter in the world’s game.
“I love representing South Jersey,” he said. “More men’s soccer players have been from North Jersey, like Tab Ramos. … It’s different for a South Jersey guy, and I think that’s something I’m proud of. I’m proud of the town that I’m from; I’m proud of how I grew up.”
He figures that somewhere down the road, he’ll come back home “to just have a house on the beach — that’s my dream.”
Maybe on Long Beach Island, he said, where he used to spend summers with his grandmother. Or in Cape May, where he also used to visit.
For now, he watches the local soccer scene from afar, especially his younger brother Paxten. It was never a secret that Paxten, also a midfielder, would break through with the Union eventually, and Brenden knew it better than anyone. That time has come this year. Brenden has been thrilled to watch Paxten flourish.
“Jim [Curtin] knows how to handle young players,” Brenden said. “I think he’s done a great job with Paxten — I think [Paxten] needed to get pushed a little bit, and I think now you’re seeing it on the field and he’s just expressing himself. I know how good of a player he is, because I’ve been playing since him since I was 6 years old and he was 3, barely able to walk.”
Brenden admitted that he doesn’t get to watch Paxten as much as he’d like to, because a 7:30 p.m. kickoff in Chester is a 1:30 a.m. kickoff in Salzburg. But Brenden finds out what happened in the Union games eventually, and the family celebrations always end up on Instagram.
“I’m really proud, and I know that this is just the beginning for him,” Brenden said. “He loves the game. He’s going to continue to develop and get better and better, and I know he’s going have a really breakout season next year — that’s what I predict.”