Brenden Aaronson’s game against the visiting Seattle Sounders was perhaps the best of his Union career to date. The Medford native registered 43 touches, took four shots, created a career-high four chances, and completed 22 of 26 passes during the scoreless draw. Had either of his long-range rips that capped off barnstorming runs upfield gone in the net, he would have brought the house down Saturday night.
Aaronson knows, though, that those other two shots mattered, too — and they mattered for what he did wrong, not what he did right. They were close-range opportunities in crowded 18-yard boxes, chances that require instinctive decisions instead of calculation. Unfortunately, he got both moments wrong.
In the 10th minute, Aaronson received a cross from Kai Wagner near the penalty spot. He was pretty open, but took an extra touch that gave Seattle’s defense time to trap him.
Many in the building knew what happened, from players on the field to JP Dellacamera and Tommy Smyth in the TV booth. Both broadcasters have watched decades of American soccer prospects, and know Aaronson is the real deal.
"Why did he take a touch on it, JP? He should have just lashed it," Smyth opined.
“First time, right? Needed to be quicker, and he had it,” Dellacamera answered.
Aaronson did better with a close-range chance he got in the 69th minute, hitting the ball on first touch instead of settling it. But he didn’t swing his body right, and the resulting mishit flew into the stands.
When Aaronson has time to look up and make a choice, he’s already good enough to get the choice right. His first career MLS goal, scored in March at Atlanta United, is proof of that.
But the moments when a little veteran savvy is needed — when Marco Fabián would have likely scored, to be frank — are the moments that remind us Aaronson is still just 18.
“I think it was his best game for the Union,” manager Jim Curtin said. “Ernst [Tanner] and I want him to not be good — we want him to be great. The difference is now maybe finishing one of those plays off.”
Haris Medunjanin also offered Aaronson some tough love, the kind a World Cup veteran gives a young teammate with the potential to reach the same heights.
“He needs to be sharp. He needs to be hard on himself. He needs to know that the balls need to go in,” Medunjanin said. "He’s still an 18-year-old guy, on this level, to play like that, and he’s an amazing player like he showed today. If he could reward himself with a goal, [he’d] win the game for us.
"I will always support him and always have his back, and I will always try and help him as much as I can, and hopefully he will get more goals and more assists.”
Medunjanin has played against some of the planet’s best playmakers. He owns Lionel Messi’s jersey from Argentina’s game against Medunjanin’s Bosnia and Herzegovina at the 2014 World Cup. Though he is nearing the end of his playing days now at 34, he still has much to offer as a teacher.
“The first ball that he had, I think if he controlled it very good there, he could shoot the ball. But in these kinds of moments, you need to be more sharp," Medujnanin said. “I think that’s the only thing that [Aaronson] needs to understand as a No. 10: that he needs to score goals and give assists. That’s what they’re going to judge you after, especially in Europe. If you are a No. 10, you need to score goals.”
Aaronson knew it, too, and he did not hide from the subject after the game.
“Finish my chances, for sure — I had way too many," he said. “That’s a thing I guess I’m learning and I need to get better at, so that’s one for me.”
When that happens — and it’s fair to say when, not if — Aaronson will reach an even higher perch in the sport. And as Medunjanin alluded, the soccer world well beyond Philadelphia will notice.
Now for a few other quick observations on Saturday’s game:
At the start of this season, a fair number of Union fans were ready to see the team move on from Ray Gaddis. But the 29-year-old has once again quieted his critics. Though he got caught upfield too often in the recent game at Toronto, for the most part he has adapted well to a tactical setup in which he’s the only player on the right flank.
Gaddis played quite well against Seattle: 104 touches, 2 tackles, 1 interception and 77 of 86 completed passes. Here’s the map of his touches from MLS and Opta’s stats engine:
Pop quiz: Guess who led the Union in touches (115), chances created (5) and completed passes (92 out of 103 attempts) against Seattle?
OK, it was an open-book quiz, and you probably already knew the answer. But let’s give Medunjanin his due anyway, because all those stats were season highs. He also pitched in defensively with four tackles.
Credit to the crowd that came to Chester on Saturday night. The actual attendance wasn’t quite the announced figure of 18,540, but the building was the fullest and the loudest it’s been in a while.
The sense among this column’s regular readers was that the fans got their money’s worth. Here’s a sampling of reaction on Twitter: