Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
Here is an odd thing about this series: It has taken us until the fifth entry to actually cover a young USMNT stud who has made the move from MLS to a big-time European club. None of Antonee Robinson, Josh Sargent, or Konrad de la Fuente ever played in MLS, and Ricardo Pepi hasn’t yet played anywhere else. It is good and important for the national team program that young players in the United States with European passports (or conversely, young European players with American connections) get opportunities to stand out with the club teams of their youth and get scouted; it is 100 percent vital that MLS shows itself capable of preparing academy products for moves to Europe. Stability as a long-term elite team will necessarily take homegrown players.
Which brings us to Brenden Aaronson. The 20-year-old New Jerseyan transfer to Red Bull Salzburg was at the time the most expensive in MLS history for a homegrown player, and what was most striking about Aaronson’s arrival in Salzburg in January was that he hit the ground running. There was a very little learning curve, and he pretty much instantly started scoring and creating at an even higher clip than he did in Philadelphia. That means Salzburg have reaped the benefits of aggressively scouting MLS and competing for young American players, benefits that include their ascension to the Champions League group stage. Aaronson is proof of concept. It was clear he was going to really be something when he scored his first MLS goal from outside the box, against Brad Guzan, at age 17, but the question with every player like that is, “What’s his ceiling?” We don’t know, but it’s higher than “really good player on the best team in a second-tier European league.”
Who Does He Play For?
Salzburg! They’re good. They always win the Austrian Bundesliga, and they’re in the middle of the Red Bull pyramid between New York and Leipzig. Aaronson’s goalscoring with Salzburg is even better than it was in Philly, and though he was brought over by American manager Jesse Marsch, he’s remained a cornerstone of the Salzburg lineup now that Marsch has moved up the pyramid. The Austrian Bundesliga is a nice spot for him, for now. Aaronson is pretty clearly brimming with confidence, and while it’s pretty obvious he has the talent for at least the regular Bundesliga, he’s still 20, and is only just now enjoying his first full season of European soccer. I am most excited to watch him in the Champions League this season, where he’ll be in a group with John Brooks’s Wolfsburg and Tim Weah’s Lille.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
Aaronson is very well-rounded attacking midfielder. Jim Curtin asked his attackers to do a lot of pressing, and one thing that stands out with Aaronson’s game is not just that he can win the ball back in the midfield but that he can win the ball back and then quickly start asking questions of the defense. His movement is probably his best skill, and his highlights show that he has a real sense of arriving just on time for the ball to shift to him or to unlock a runner or to rip a shot.
The shooting is also a real standout skill. Aaronson is the only American player with multiple goals during this qualification cycle, one little dinker, and one real hot one against Honduras that sealed the 4-1 win. Aaronson’s nine goals in 32 appearances for Salzburg speak to his prolific finishing, which is especially impressive given that he tends to shoot from the edge of the box. Really, Aaronson is a fairly complete player. There isn’t a big hole in his game. He doesn’t cook guys off the dribble, but he uses his speed to make space for passing lanes. He fits in very well to pressing- and running-based systems, and he’s a natural counterattacker. As a passer, Aaronson isn’t the tightest in small spaces, though he can slap longballs quite adeptly and he regularly looks for opportunities to play it up the field in a hurry.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Aaronson is 20, though he does cool stuff and has cool hair and plays with a real swagger. You know what it is: 17 out of 20.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
According to this old Philadelphia Inquirer story, Aaronson played four positions in the Union’s win against Cincinnati, including right-sided defensive midfield. Seems pretty obvious to me he could slide back one more row.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
I will show you two!
How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Real good! The Honduras game was the clearest example of how Aaronson can help this team. Down a goal after getting owned by Honduras for 45 minutes, Gregg Berhalter put Aaronson on for the second half and the dynamic instantly flipped. His pressure on the ball was one of the most decisive factors in the sudden shift from the USMNT not being able to have the ball really at all to scoring four goals and running away with a huge win. His fit with Ricardo Pepi was ideal, and I don’t really see any Berhalter setup that he wouldn’t be a huge benefit to. The USMNT has a lot of players like him, and a lot of good players who play similar positions, but Aaronson might be the most well-rounded.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
He should probably start, which I didn’t really expect. Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic are locked in, but it’s hard to make a case against Aaronson, given all he provides in support for the team. His turn as the most reliable American attacker in a transformative three qualifying games probably sealed it.