CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson watched the Major League Soccer Homegrown Game last year to cheer on his future club teammates.
Now, Aaronson — who was added to the Union’s first-team roster in January — is going to be on center stage, as well as goalkeeper Matt Freese, in the 2019 Homegrown Game on July 30 at the Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida.
“Mark (McKenzie), Matt (Real), Auston (Trusty), (Anthony) Fontana were there last year,” Aaronson said. “It’s awesome to see how many guys have come from the (Union) academy and play in these Homegrown games. To be the next one, me and Freese, I think it’s really awesome.”
“I don’t think they’ve even come close to reaching their full potential yet,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “It makes you excited as a coach. The future is bright for both of those guys.”
In the last three years, the Union have had seven Homegrowns participate in the event that takes place the night before the MLS All-Star Game.
“It means a ton to be able to represent the team at the Homegrown Game, especially being able to do it with Brenden,” Freese said. “We’ve played together for so many years. It’s going to be dope to be able to play beside him on that team.”
The seven different participants is tied with FC Dallas, who has four Homegrowns in the 2019 game, for most individuals to take part in the exhibition during that span.
“I think it just speaks volumes to the philosophy of the club,” Freese said. “A lot of our philosophy is growing our own players and it’s not just growing our own players to force them on the field when they’re not ready. They are playing well on the field when they get there and the accolades come. I think it speaks a lot to the club as a whole, the academy staff as well as the connection between the academy staff, Steel and the first team.”
Aaronson has played 1,138 minutes in his first MLS season with one goal and one assist to his name. Freese, who was signed in December as a Homegrown after two years at Harvard, has started in five contests.
Curtin believes this is just the first step in a set of goals Aaronson and Freese should try to achieve, and he is going to challenge the pair of players before they leave for Orlando, which will occur after the July 27 game against Montreal at Stade Saputo.
“It’s great for them, You have to soak it all in for sure,” Curtin said. “The message, I haven’t given it to them yet, but I’ll give them before they leave is the goal now has to be that they play in the real All-Star Game.
“That’s the next step so that you’re playing with the Carlos Velas of the world and that type of player. They’ll be around that, they’ll feel what it’s like. It’s great to be honored for the Homegrown Game, but there’s levels, and there’s the next level. They have to be pushing themselves, asking lots of questions while they are there, picking the brain of some of the great coaches that will be there and different quality of players. They’ll be around it and get a taste of it.”
Curtain added: “And now the next step is for them, because they have it in them, is to become All-Stars in this league. That’s a cool thing to be a part of and it’s something that’s going to be right in front of their eyes. I was fortunate enough as a player to experience it one time (in 2004). And I actually regret I didn’t soak it in enough. I was actually just trying to survive it because it was 100 degrees and I had to play 90 minutes against some really good players. I will encourage them to embrace every second and minute they are there.”
None of the previous Homegrown Game selections from the Union have made the All-Star Game. In fact, Andre Blake is the first Union All-Star selection since 2016, and only Blake and Keegan Rosenberry have been named to the All-Star Game from the club since 2015.
Part of that is due to the Union’s reliance on the full team to achieve success, instead of relying on a specific player, which is where the Homegrowns come into play in a major way.
“The roster spots in our league are so valuable,” Curtin said. “You have to use each one so intelligently and get the most out of every one. For our young guys to step in, we don’t just sign anyone, we sign guys that we think are ready to play MLS minutes and that is maybe a difference between us and other clubs that maybe go and spend at the top end and anything they get from the bottom is a bonus where as we’re more open the whole way through.”
Now the goal for the two Homegrowns is to take Curtin’s advice, when he gives it to them, and make the most of the opportunity at the end of July to create momentum for the rest of the season and prove how strong the club’s academy pipeline is.
“I’m super grateful for the coaches to give me that chance,” Aaronson said. “I think I’ve worked very hard and me working hard and them believing in me really helps. Everybody’s a really good player down there so I’m excited.”