Brenden Aaronson’s meteoric rise from Medford, New Jersey, toward the top of global soccer hit new heights on Sunday in a rip-roaring Leeds United win over Chelsea — and on a landmark day for Americans in the sport.
It wasn’t just the goal, Aaronson’s first in the Premier League and Leeds’ first in a 3-0 victory.
It wasn’t just the spin that put Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the world’s most accomplished defenders, in a blender.
It was that everything Aaronson and Leeds did epitomized what he and American men’s soccer have become.
In the first 45 minutes alone, the 21-year-old buzzed around Elland Road from his central attacking midfield position. He snapped into tackles. He broke lines with clever flicks. He ran behind Chelsea’s overwhelmed defense.
He popped up on the right wing and the left wing, in the middle third and even the defensive third, and everywhere in between.
He wasn’t, and isn’t, flawless on the ball. In fact, mere seconds before tapping it into an empty net, he gave it away with a sloppy pass.
But Aaronson’s most coveted skill, despite the “attacker” label, is actually his front-foot defending. He’s one of the world’s premier pressers. He is relentless without the ball, “an annoying gnat, like a fly that you can’t get out of your face,” US teammate Weston McKennie once said.
His reaction to losing the ball in the 33rd minute was, and always is, to sprint towards it. He charged down one Chelsea player, then a second, and then, finally, goalkeeper Edouard Mendy.
Because he did, he had the freedom, and the audacity, to score his first EPL goal with a no-look finish.
He also had a US teammate, Tyler Adams, getting stuck in on Chelsea midfielders and supporting him all afternoon long.
He has an American manager, Jesse Marsch, empowering him and the rest of Leeds United to swarm opponents, no matter how big or rich those opponents are.
Marsch celebrated Aaronson’s goal with a sprint of his own down the touchline, a jump and a fist-pump. He celebrated the third goal — scored by English winger Jack Harrison, a product of an American high school and college and MLS — with a spike of his water bottle. He spent several minutes after the final whistle twirling his jacket and pounding his chest as Leeds supporters sang his name.
Christian Pulisic entered the fray off Chelsea’s bench in the second half, and perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this astonishing day was that, of the five American soccer products to take part in a Premier League game, Christian Pulisic, the country’s most celebrated star, was the least-discussed of the five.
After the match, as Marsch made the rounds, commending players and saluting fans, Aaronson, Adams and Pulisic chatted briefly on the field.
Adams then wrapped himself in an American flag and paraded around the pitch.
Aaronson told NBC Sports in a postgame interview: “It just goes to show people around the world that Americans can play football too.”
The scary part — or, rather, the scary good part — is that Aaronson has found it difficult to even crack the US men’s national team starting 11. Head coach Gregg Berhalter has preferred Pulisic, 23, and Lille forward Tim Weah, 22, on the wings. He has preferred McKennie, a 23-year-old regular at Juventus, as the most advanced midfielder. There is no obvious place for Aaronson in the team.
And yet he might, at the moment, be the best American player in the world.
He is definitely a sign of the times, a representative of the most promising generation of men’s players that the US has ever produced, and proof of concept for the academies producing them. Just five years ago, he was being trained and educated by the Philadelphia Union academy and the specialized prep school affiliated with it.
He is now their postboy. But he’s certain that he won’t be the last.
“I can say, there’s gonna be a lot more talent coming out of the Philadelphia Union academy,” he assured reporters earlier this year. “I think that it’s only starting now” — in Philadelphia and, he clarified, “in the whole country,” where “academies are getting better and better.”
The next in the soon-to-be-long line might be his brother, Paxten, 18, who some in Philadelphia believe could be as good or better than Brenden.
And Brenden is still just 21. Three years ago, he was a teenage MLS rookie. Just last year, he was moving to Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Just a few months ago, he was in agony as he watched Leeds try to stay in the Premier League, his move contingent on them avoiding relegation.
They did, and now he’s the second-most expensive US player ever, and maybe the most exciting. He is sending Premier League stadiums into rapturous celebration. He is an ultra-modern player in an ultra-modern team that is flying all sorts of flags for Americans in the sport. And there is no telling how good he might become.