Mere seconds after the second half started in the Union’s 1-1 draw at reigning MLS champion Atlanta United on Sunday, Brenden Aaronson saw Kai Wagner working his way up the field with the ball. Aaronson took a look over his shoulder, saw Atlanta’s defense backing off, then looked back to see Wagner and Fafa Picault play a short give-and-go on the left flank.
The 18-year-old Medford native knew this was his moment. He took a pass from Wagner, cut inside, ran to the middle, and unleashed a shot from just over 20 yards that went through Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’s legs. With help from a slight deflection, the ball rolled past Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan as he fell over helplessly.
In his first career MLS game, Aaronson scored his first career MLS goal — and turned a former U.S. national team stalwart into a Twitter meme. A player who has carried expectations for success almost since the day he started playing for Union youth teams as an 8-year-old officially arrived on the big stage.
“I was so happy, just to score to for your hometown team, in a big game like that," Aaronson said. "I went through my phone and I had a thousand texts or something like that. I wanted to get back to everybody. ... It took me about three hours to do that.”
Aaronson’s veteran teammates knew how big the goal was, and they swarmed him to celebrate. Union captain Alejandro Bedoya waved all the players over, and Haris Medunjanin — Aaronson’s roomate in preseason — was quick to follow.
“Haris has helped me a lot this year,” Aaronson said. “He gave me some stuff [to know] before the game. ... He’s a genius with this kind of stuff, so I listen to him a lot.”
In many ways, Aaronson is no different from many of his former classmates at Shawnee High three years ago, who are now seniors getting ready to go to college. He’s quiet, humble, and hardworking.
He’s also a professional athlete at age 18, younger than most counterparts in basketball, baseball, hockey, and certainly football. When kids in Medford who play multiple sports look at what they could do in life, Aaronson is proof that soccer can get you paid at a younger age than the traditional American sports do.
“So many kids in South Jersey are starting to love soccer now,” he said. “You’ve just got to keep working hard, and anything can happen.”