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Brenden Aaronson gets better as the spotlight gets brighter and the MLS playoff race gets hotter

U.S. men's national team coach Gregg Berhalter said this week that “it’s great to see” what Aaronson is doing, and that the 19-year-old Medford native “obviously is an established player at his age.”

Brenden Aaronson on the ball during the Union's 3-0 win over Inter Miami at Subaru Park this past Sunday.
Brenden Aaronson on the ball during the Union's 3-0 win over Inter Miami at Subaru Park this past Sunday.Read moreAndrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union

As the Union get closer to selling Brenden Aaronson, the Medford native keeps getting better on the field. And the spotlight will keep growing on him, starting with Saturday night’s game against perennial power Toronto FC (7:30 p.m., PHL17).

Aaronson’s standout performance in last Sunday’s 3-0 win over Inter Miami showcased the full range of his talents. He completed 20 of 21 passes; recorded three tackles, and capped the night off with the game’s last goal.

But his best moment barely registered in the box score.

Go watch the Union’s second goal again — the whole buildup, not just the end. After a Miami throw-in, the Union were stuck in tight space on the right wing, and Aaronson had two defenders watching him when he received a pass from Ilsinho near the sideline.

Aaronson escaped in superb fashion: a give-and-go with Ilsinho and a cut behind Dylan Nealis to break into space and collect the return pass.

From there, Aaronson took off. But he didn’t just run down the open wing. He cut inside, beating two defenders, then a third, then a fourth. Once his head was up, he switched feet to pass to a wide-open Jamiro Monteiro, who fed Kacper Przybylko to set up Ilsinho for the finish.

It was as electrifying a sequence as there could be in an empty Subaru Park.

» READ MORE: Union get goals from Anthony Fontana, Ilsinho and Brenden Aaronson to defeat Miami, 3-0, in the rain

Union manager Jim Curtin knew right away what he had seen, and he wasn’t alone.

“I know a couple coaches that were watching the game,” Curtin said, adding that their interest grew because Aaronson started the game in a deeper role than usual. “I think some people saw the game and liked it.”

It’s a safe bet Red Bull Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch was one of those people. The highlights surely brightened Marsch’s Monday morning, knowing that Salzburg and the Union are near a deal to send Aaronson to Austria.

» READ MORE: Union in talks to sell Brenden Aaronson to Red Bull Salzburg

Curtin also didn’t name U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter, but Berhalter named himself. He said this week that “it’s great to see” what Aaronson is doing, and that the 19-year-old “obviously is an established player at his age.”

Aaronson hasn’t always been highly regarded by the sorts of people who can crown a prospect as a big deal. But observers in the know have watched him for a while.

“His balance is what separates him for me — [the] ability to change direction quickly and create a yard of space where there wasn’t one before,” said Keith Costigan, a longtime Fox Sports broadcaster who also works in youth soccer scouting. “Jim’s trust in him as a player can’t be underestimated in his development.”

Former national team star Tony Meola has worked with Aaronson in his assistant coaching stints with various U.S. youth national teams. Meola believes Salzburg is an ideal destination, thanks to its track record of developing top players and Marsch’s American roots.

And when the U.S. national team gets busy next year, Aaronson will too. Whether with the under-23 squad at the Olympics or as depth on the senior team, he’ll likely get big-stage opportunities. Plus, of course, there are the European games he could play in for Salzburg.

“The way people look at him from this side of the pond will be a little bit different, there’s no doubt,” Meola said. “It’ll be a challenge every step of the way, but I think it’s clear to see that he’s got the tools to make it happen.”

» READ MORE: Top soccer games to watch this weekend, including Alex Morgan vs. Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis

It will make the Union look pretty good too, especially if Aaronson can help the team make a deep playoff run before he leaves. Saturday’s game — which be played in East Hartford, Conn., because of Canadian border restrictions — is the start of the charge. The Union and Toronto are tied for second place with 28 points each, two behind first-place Columbus and two ahead of fourth-place Orlando.

“I think it’s fair to say Philly don’t get as much exposure [as other MLS teams], and that means his growth goes under the radar,” Costigan said. “But the most important thing is scouts and teams can see his ability, and the belief is he can go to Europe and develop further.”