At only 21, Brenden Aaronson has grown into a critical member of the United States men’s national team while also securing a move to Leeds United. A winner everywhere that he goes, Aaronson has become known for the infectious energy he brings and his desire to learn, grow, and consume film at every chance that he can. As he told CBS Sports’ In Soccer We Trust podcast that unique mix comes from his background training with his dad Rusty and brother Paxten while also making a name for himself coming through the Philadelphia Union academy.
The most surprising thing about Aaronson, however, is that while he has done so much in his career, he doesn’t have a set position yet. His versatility has helped him progress, but it means no manager has yet nailed him down into a specific role. Over the years he has played as an eight, a 10 and a winger but he could be finding his groove as Gregg Berhalter looks to find different ways to get his best team — which includes Aaronson — on the field at the same time.
The recent friendlies against Morroco and Uruguay saw Aaronson taking up a role deeper in midfield that is normally occupied by Weston McKennie. With Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah operating almost as dual defensive midfielders, Aaronson was charged with operating in the half spaces between the midfield and attack which is a place where he feels comfortable.
Aaronson enjoyed the role.
“I’ve played in ten at Red Bull Salzburg, and I know my role in the middle so it was good to kind of get another chance to play in the middle of this camp.” Aaronson said, “It worked out that I was able to play against Morocco and play a good game. And it was good for the team [when it came to] the flow of the attack and everything that I was a part of the game, it felt good in the middle”
In that Morocco game, Aaronson scored a goal with a run deep in midfield that Christian Pulisic spotted. While the run isn’t too different from ones that he also made as a winger, being able to bring his awareness from behind Pulisic and Tim Weah made quite a difference compared to operating further up the pitch. Watching the game unfold and pick his runs is a place where Aaronson’s attention to film study shines.
On the national stage, it can make a big difference. Picking up on a team’s tendencies and using it to cut them apart from deep can be the difference between making it out of the group stage at the World Cup and an early trip home. It also helps to play a role that you enjoy. “It’s safe to say that I do like playing the eight and it’s something that I see myself playing in the future. And I think I can do this, this box-to-box midfield [role].”, Aaronson added.
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While he will shuttle around at times, this is the role Aaronson will be expected to play with Leeds United as he reunites with his old coach Jesse Marsch. The hope is that also with upcoming Concacaf Nations League games against Grenada and El Salvador, Aaronson will also get to play deeper in midfield. For teams who are more likely to sit back and let the USMNT have the ball, it helps to have someone like Aaronson to thread the ball through holes created by the defense and take advantage of channels that open up.
Driving the game in situations like this is where Aaronson says he wants to grow his personal game and he’s quick to point to players like Kevin de Bruyne for examples of attacking players who can also dictate the game from deep. And Aaronson has experience playing on teams that dictate play like that. He earned his move to Leeds while playing on one of the best teams in Austria in RB Salzburg, a team that either had the ball or was trying to get the ball for the vast majority of time during its matches. And, looking forward, at the World Cup he’ll likely have an opportunity to do something similar against Iran and Wales, two more stylistically conservative sides in the USMNT’s group.
As Berhalter looks to continue the USMNT’s development, Aaronson’s continued maturation will be key to reaching new levels. Aaronson’s thirst to develop his personal game at all times, combined with the favorable club situation he’s head towards with Leeds United, should set the stage for him to make the next jump in his career with club and country.
Whether he has the chance to show it in the Nations League this summer, or in the World Cup in November, Aaronson is an important part of the future of the USMNT…wherever on the field he happens to line up.