Paxten Aaronson’s talent has never been a secret, at least not in the way his older brother Brenden’s was when he made his way toward MLS.
The Union knew Paxten, 18, had something special from the moment the family walked in the doors of the club’s youth academy eight years ago. Scouts who watched Paxten debut with the Union’s former USL reserve team as a 16-year-old needed little convincing. And from there, the sorts of people who treat youth soccer prospects like high school basketball and football recruits — it’s not as profitable a business yet, but it’s growing fast — were on the case.
It certainly helped that at the same time, Brenden, now 20, was on a rocket-ship ride to stardom: scoring in his MLS debut, helping the Union win their first trophy, moving to Red Bull Salzburg, becoming a stalwart there, scoring the goals that put the club in this season’s Champions League group stage, and dropping five goals and four assists in his first 12 U.S. national team games — including two goals and an assist in the Americans’ five World Cup qualifiers so far.
As Brenden got more attention, fans and media who hadn’t known of him naturally asked not just who this kid was, but if anyone was coming next from the club that developed him.
The answer included: Well, you might want to know about his brother …
Some of those in the know might have been at Subaru Park on May 30, when fans chanted “We want Paxten!” as he warmed up for his MLS debut. They might have been watching from home on Aug. 9, when he made his first MLS start and scored his first MLS goal in a 2-1 loss at New England as the Union prepared for the Champions League semifinals.
The Union have been understandably patient with Aaronson, knowing that even his copious potential wouldn’t guarantee success. But his playing time has slowly increased in recent weeks, and he made his third start in Saturday’s 2-1 win at FC Cincinnati.
This time, a lot more people were watching. Aaronson delivered again, and not just with what proved to be the game-winning goal — a leaping header at which he threw his is 5-foot-9 frame to give the Union a 2-0 lead in the 56th minute.
With just 37 touches in 102 minutes of play (including 12 combined minutes of stoppage time), he completed 19 of 25 passes and created three scoring chances. He also put in a shift defensively, with six recoveries, three duels won, and one clearance.
“The kid’s a baller,” said Union goalkeeper Matt Freese, one of six academy products on the field at the final whistle. “I think he might need to get a haircut, but I think he’s an incredible player.”
“I have full confidence in Pax,” said right back Nathan Harriel, another of the six academy products and a fellow member of Aaronson’s rookie class. “We’re there for a reason … If we weren’t supposed to be there, Jim wouldn’t put us on the field.”
Union manager Jim Curtin knows the dangers of over-hyping a teenager. But on a night when eight players were missing due to national team duty, suspension or injury, he knew he could turn the kids loose and let them show their stuff.
“Look, Paxten is going to be really special,” Curtin said. “Obviously, there’s good genetics in the family for sure. But his ability to be comfortable in a big game on the road, in a hostile environment, and want the ball, and want to be part of the big moment, and still be running and pressing in the 90th minute to help his team out to get a victory, he’s way beyond his years and his experience.”
Aaronson isn’t going to displace any of the Union’s veterans from the regular starting lineup yet. As well as he played Saturday, Cincinnati showed again why it’s MLS’ worst team.
Now the schedule gets harder. The Union (12-7-9, 45 points) play four of their last six regular-season games against playoff contenders: Saturday at Montreal, Oct. 20 at Minnesota, Oct. 23 at home vs. Nashville, and Nov. 7 at New York City FC.
An Oct. 27 visit to Toronto and a Halloween home game vs. Cincinnati might provide a little respite, but not much with the Eastern Conference standings so jammed. Those contests also cap off a stretch of five games in 15 days before a week off to prepare for the regular-season finale.
But a packed schedule leads to squad rotation, which means Aaronson will get his share of time. Curtin will be ready to make the call.
“I know that everybody wants more minutes for these young kids, but sometimes there is a calculated plan with these guys and getting them the right minutes at the right time,” Curtin said. “But certainly, the training wheels are coming off. You’re starting to get to the point of the year where the training wheels can come off, and it’s time for them to ride the big-boy bikes, the two-wheeler, and let them go.”