Union manager Jim Curtin insisted that he had been planning to give Paxten Aaronson his professional debut Sunday night once the 3-0 win over the Portland Timbers was settled.
But he definitely heard the fans in the River End chanting “We want Paxten!” a few minutes before deciding it was finally time to send the 17-year-old rookie playmaker into the game.
“He was going in anyway — I felt like I got bullied into that,” Curtin said with a laugh in his postgame news conference.
The fans knew to temper their expectations, because Aaronson still has a ways to go before he’s ready for significant minutes. But they were right to want to see him on the field. Brenden’s younger brother has immense potential, and everyone around the Union knows it. Indeed, you don’t have to dig far to find people who think Paxten’s ceiling is higher.
» READ MORE: Observations and analysis on the Union's win
“With the young guys, nothing is ever handed to them,” Curtin said. “We don’t just hand debuts out; we don’t just hand them minutes. They earn everything. And Paxten has earned every opportunity that he’s got through hard work in training. He’s been excellent in practice day in and day out, so now he gets rewarded.”
The same goes for another 17-year-old, Quinn Sullivan, who made his fifth professional appearance when he replaced Alejandro Bedoya soon after Aaronson entered.
“I want the minutes to be longer because they are both special players,” Curtin said. “I think we all want it fast, and we all want it right away in today’s world and in today’s game. But there’s a plan for these kids. They’re special talents, and if you give them too much too soon, it can go the other way and be negative.”
This has been part of Curtin’s work as a coach since he started his managerial career overseeing Union youth teams. And he has known Aaronson since the player was 10 years old.
So when Curtin evaluates Aaronson, he isn’t evaluating just any Union academy product.
“I do think Paxten is a kid that when he plays with our top group, our first group of players, our starters, it makes him that much better,” Curtin said. “Similar to how you saw Brenden kind of start to thrive. Where games with Bethlehem Steel were almost more difficult for Brenden, when you surround them with real talent and high-end talent, they’ll put them on the ball in the right spots.”
Curtin saw that happen Sunday night, even in Aaronson’s short time on the field.
“They want to give him the ball because they trust him and they like him,” Curtin said.
The comparisons are inevitable. They won’t last forever, but they will last for a while, and everyone knows it.
“His body movement [and] language is like his brother’s. It’s so funny to see,” said Union striker Kacper Przybylko, whose first-half goal and assist helped give Curtin the latitude to send in Aaronson. “But obviously a great achievement for him being this young age and getting these minutes in MLS.”
Curtin pleaded guilty, too.
“I’ve been trying to avoid the natural thing that everybody is going to do,” Curtin said. “He’s his own person, he’s his own player, he’s a great kid, and he deserved tonight, and hopefully it’s a memorable special night for him and his family. It’s just the beginning, and he’s going to leave a big impact on the Philadelphia Union, and then even beyond that.”