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Brenden Aaronson helps the Union achieve another milestone, this time in England

Aaronson is the fourth former Union youth team player to make it to England's famous soccer stage. As his Leeds debut awaits this weekend, it's a good time to tell all four stories.

Former Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson is expected to make his English Premier League debut with Leeds United this weekend.
Former Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson is expected to make his English Premier League debut with Leeds United this weekend.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff

Amid all the accomplishments the Union have achieved in recent years, they’ve also quietly moved toward one milestone that matters far beyond Subaru Park. The organization has reached a new marker this summer, and with the new English Premier League season kicking off this weekend, it’s a good time to say so.

Brenden Aaronson is the fourth player to have been part of the Union’s youth teams who has made it to a Premier League club. The Medford-born playmaker is likely to make his official debut for Leeds United on Saturday against Wolverhampton Wanderers (10 a.m., Peacock), after playing well in preseason exhibitions.

It’s a day the Union have anticipated ever since Aaronson entered their youth program as a talented 10-year-old. He turned pro at age 17 in 2018, exploded on to the scene a year later, and in 2020 helped the Union win their first trophy in team history.

Union sporting director Ernst Tanner’s phone erupted with interest from foreign suitors, and he picked one he knew well: Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg, the club whose youth academy he ran before coming here. Salzburg paid $6 million up front and $3 million more in incentive bonuses to sign Aaronson after the 2020 season.

Aaronson starred at Salzburg, winning two Austrian league titles and two cups, and helping the team reach the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time. He also became a star with the U.S. national team, playing a big role in helping the Americans return to the men’s World Cup after missing the last one.

When Salzburg’s Princeton-bred American manager Jesse Marsch arrived at Leeds in February, Aaronson was one of his first signing targets. The move was quietly done for months before it became official in May. Leeds paid a whopping $30 million, and the Union got $5 million of it as part of their initial deal with Salzburg.

» READ MORE: The dream has come true for Brenden Aaronson, with Leeds United and the U.S. men’s soccer team

Before they were stars

Later this month, Aaronson could play against another Union academy alum when Leeds hosts Chelsea on Aug. 21 in one of English soccer’s signature rivalries.

If you know soccer, you know that a certain Chelsea player is the most famous American man in the sport: Christian Pulisic. But you might not know that Pulisic used to be in the Union’s academy.

It was only true for a moment. The Hershey native spent most of his youth soccer years with the Lancaster-based PA Classics club. But in the summer of 2012, Pulisic played for a Union under-15 team in the prestigious Generation adidas tournament in Seattle. A few fields over, current Union manager Jim Curtin was coaching the club’s under-17 squad. He was able to watch Pulisic play a bit.

“Christian was tiny back then,” Curtin said. “He was really, really young. But you could still see his obviously natural ability and talent on the field, for sure.”

That was a few years before the Union launched their full-fledged academy in Wayne. Back then, the club put together its “official” teams by borrowing players from around the region who were interested (and whose youth clubs were willing to help).

So it’s not as if the Union can claim a lot of credit for Pulisic, but it’s fair to give them an ounce. And he has not forgotten. In May 2020, Pulisic spoke to the Union’s reserve team over Zoom when the pandemic had shut down sports.

» READ MORE: How the Union got Christian Pulisic, Kaká, and Fernandinho to do Zoom chats with their prospects during the coronavirus lockdown

In 2013, Pulisic joined the full-time residency program that the U.S. Soccer Federation used to run at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Then in early 2015, he made a move that changed the sport in this country forever, joining German superpower Borussia Dortmund.

Pulisic’s success there helped open the floodgates for American players to move to Europe and finally be taken seriously. It also led English giant Chelsea to buy him for $73 million, smashing (and still holding) the transfer fee record for an American. Aaronson’s $30 million ranks No. 2.

One who could have been

In the same summer when Pulisic played for the Union’s under-15s, Curtin was coaching the under-17s. His starting goalkeeper was a big-time prospect from Downingtown, Zack Steffen, who came from prestigious youth club FC Delco.

“He was obviously a talent, no question about it,” Curtin said. “He was a quiet, humble kid, kind of a shy kid in that Generation adidas team that was really special. … Some of the saves he made in penalty kicks were incredible, and he carried us to a win against Toronto in that Generation adidas Cup final.”

It would be seven more years before Steffen made a much-heralded move to Manchester City. He went from the Union, FC Delco, and Downingtown West High School to the University of Maryland, where he led the Terrapins to a 2013 national championship game that was played at Subaru Park.

At the end of 2014, Steffen left Maryland to turn pro with German club Freiburg. That he did not turn pro with the Union raised some eyebrows at the time. The Union’s CEO back then, Nick Sakiewicz, claimed that Steffen didn’t want to play for the club, so it believed there was no chance to sign him. But it was never clear how hard the Union tried.

Whatever harm was caused back then has been healed by the passage of time, Steffen’s success, and the career of another player involved in the saga: Andre Blake. The Union drafted him in early 2014 (at a draft held in Philadelphia), gambling on a move up to the No. 1 pick at a time when the college draft still mattered.

The bet paid off beyond anyone’s dreams. Since becoming the Union’s starter in late 2015, Blake has been not just one of the best goalkeepers in MLS, but in all of Concacaf.

Steffen did not get to his current high level as quickly. His time at Freiburg was difficult on and off the field. The Columbus Crew, managed at the time by Gregg Berhalter, kept an eye on this. When Steffen decided to come to MLS, Berhalter pounced.

Age 21 at the time, Steffen spent three years in Columbus and boosted his stock significantly. Highlights included playoff upsets of Miguel Almirón’s Atlanta United, David Villa’s New York City FC, and Wayne Rooney’s D.C. United. The first and third of those wins came in penalty kick shootouts on the road, including Steffen’s save against Rooney from the spot.

» READ MORE: Zack Steffen has a goal beyond World Cup success: to give back

Steffen made his senior U.S. national team debut in early 2018, and won six caps that year. In a 1-1 tie at France that June, he made saves on Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann. Now the world was noticing him again, not least a French team that won the World Cup a month later.

In the summer of 2019, Manchester City paid $7.5 million to sign him, with another $2.5 million in incentives. He spent the last three years as the club’s No. 2 goalkeeper, which meant he didn’t play a ton. But he helped City win two Premier League titles and a League Cup, and two FA Cup semifinals and a Champions League final (that Pulisic’s Chelsea won).

This summer, Steffen went on loan to English second-division club Middlesbrough in order to get more playing time before the upcoming World Cup. He earned a lot of praise for his play in a season-opening 1-1 tie against West Bromwich Albion last weekend.

If he continues his momentum, he is likely to be the starter for a U.S. squad coached by Berhalter, who favors Steffen’s distribution from the back as much as his saves. And if you think that appreciation is new, now you know that it’s been around for over six years.

The Union tie, however, has been there for over a decade. Though it didn’t end how it could have, it lasted long enough that the club deserves more credit than it often gets.

“More and more kids in the Philly area should look up to Zack Steffen as much as maybe they look up to a Bryce Harper or Joel Embiid,” Curtin said. “They’re Philadelphia people that are doing it at the highest level in the game, and are great on and off the field as well.”

» READ MORE: Zack Steffen was at his best in the USMNT's World Cup qualifying win over Mexico

A former star rises again

On the same day that Steffen debuted for Middlesbrough, a Union academy alum who went all the way through to the pros here took his first steps in an English game. Media’s Auston Trusty turned pro in the summer of 2016, backing out of a college commitment to North Carolina. Two days before his 18th birthday, Trusty become the second player in Union academy history to reach the MLS ranks.

Trusty had already played for the U.S. at an under-17 World Cup by then. He had to wait his turn in MLS for two years, and passed some the time by playing for the U.S. at the 2017 under-20 World Cup.

Once he debuted at Subaru Park in 2018, he became a Union backline staple. But by the middle of 2019, he plateaued. That became combined with a change of sporting director here, which meant a change of tactics. Out went Earnie Stewart’s Dutch-inspired possession game, in came Ernst Tanner’s German counter-pressing. Trusty was a great fit for the first style, but not the second. After the 2019 season, the Union traded him to Colorado for $750,000 and a cut of any future transfer fee.

To his credit, Trusty did a fine job of resurrecting his career in the Rockies. His success even drew the attention of the club’s owners, the Kroenke Sports and Entertainment conglomerate that also owns English club Arsenal. There was interest in building a Colorado-to-Arsenal pipeline, and this summer Trusty became the first player sent through it. Arsenal paid $2 million, and the Union took home $312,500 of it.

That said, no one expected Trusty to play for Arsenal right away — including at Arsenal. He was loaned to second-division club Birmingham City, and debuted last weekend in a scoreless tie at Luton Town. The traveling Birmingham fans liked what they saw, chanting “U-S-A!” at Trusty after the final whistle.

“I think what you can say is, to young players who grow up here now, in what was known as a basketball or a football hotbed — you could do big things and play the game at the highest level, and make millions of dollars — now it’s shifting, really to soccer,” said Curtin, who became the Union’s manger in June 2014. “To see these guys go over there and dominate, to do well for our national team, to play in the some of the biggest leagues in the world, has been something that we all take great pride in. And to play a small role here in Philadelphia at the Union, I loved working with those players, a lot of great memories, and to see them all achieve success, it makes me really proud.”

» READ MORE: Media’s Auston Trusty moves to Birmingham City on loan from Arsenal

Now it is Aaronson’s turn. He will take the field in the all-white uniform of one of England’s most famous clubs, a three-time English champion that won the European Cup in 1975 and made the semifinals in 2001 before a financial collapse and relegation two years later.

Leeds’ fan base is renowned for its loyal passion and us-against-the-world mentality. If you tune in to watch this weekend, the scene might even seem a little like Philadelphia. But this time, the whole world will be watching.

“There’ll be a lot of Leeds fans here in Philadelphia, no question about that,” Curtin said, and he will be one of them.

» READ MORE: The Inquirer’s first feature on Brenden Aaronson, published in August 2018