ORLANDO, Fla. — When Philadelphia Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson entered training camp in January, he could not imagine the place he would be with three months left in the Major League Soccer regular season.
The 18-year-old, who will appear in Tuesday’s MLS Homegrown Game at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, has started 19 of 24 games played by the first-place side in the Eastern Conference.
“I always set high goals for myself so I was always trying to start,” Aaronson told Pro Soccer USA. “Everybody comes in and tries to start. You come in, you play your best. That’s what I did. I came into preseason with that mindset and I think everything is going pretty well.”
Aaronson benefited from strong preseason form and injury and suspension woes that hampered Marco Fabian to earn a consistent spot in Jim Curtin’s lineup, with his first appearance coming Week 3 against Atlanta United.
Since then, Aaronson has failed to take the field just once in league play and entered as a substitute on two occasions. The New Jersey native has played the most MLS minutes of any Homegrown Game participant at 1,309.
“The coaches have a lot of confidence in me, so I’m thankful for that,” Aaronson said. “I just go out every single week and work my butt off for the team. Even if it’s not the best game, I still work my butt off.”
“I can’t say enough about the coaches,” Aaronson said. “Every single day at training they give me stuff I have to work on and I know every single day I work in practice. Going into practice every day and working, they see that and I want to get better.”
Aaronson struck immediate success in front of goal by finding the back of the net in the March 17 draw with the Five Stripes. His ability on the ball and overall skillset even earned him the “Medford Messi” moniker from Union fans in honor of his hometown in New Jersey.
But the 18-year-old is keenly aware he has plenty to work on in order to keep his position in the Union lineup when Jamiro Monteiro returns in the next week or two to combine with Fabian, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya in the Union midfield.
“I think something I definitely need to get better at is my final third,” Aaronson said. “Finishing and all the other things, like the last pass. I just think getting my chances is the biggest thing for me. I think the best thing I’ve gotten better at, because it’s so hard for me, some of these guys I play in the midfield are gigantic and if it’s a physical battle they are always going to win. I think I’m getting stronger, but just knowing the spacial awareness, when to turn and when to play, I think I’ve gotten very good with that.”
When Monteiro, who was injured at the start of July against Orlando City, returns, Aaronson is likely headed for a role off the bench, which is a responsibility most around the club thought he would fill from the start.
When at full strength, the Union could have Aaronson, Ilsinho and one of Fafa Picault, Kacper Przybylko and Andrew Wooten coming off the bench as attacking subs, which would be the most firepower the club has ever had in reserves.
On Tuesday, Aaronson could be one of the focal points of the MLS Homegrown team’s attack against Chivas de Guadalajara’s U-20 side, and there will be competition for minutes with Sporting Kansas City’s Gianluca Busio and LA Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez headlining the crowded midfield.
Aaronson is approaching the MLS Homegrown Game with the same attitude he has all season, and he gets the added bonus of playing alongside some familiar faces.
“I think having fun is the biggest part,” Aaronson said. “It’s good being around guys I already know and getting out there playing with kids. I’m really excited. I’m going to try my hardest, as I always do.”