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Olympic qualifying in sight, Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie join USMNT U-23s feeling confident

The two Philadelphia Union homegrowns are enjoying recent runs of good form as they head to U-23 USMNT camp.

CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union homegrown players Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie are entering camp for the U.S. men’s U-23 team on the highest of highs. 

Aaronson had just scored in back-to-back games against D.C. United and Atlanta United, while McKenzie turned in a pair of solid defensive showings in the pair of 3-1 victories. 

After Saturday’s victory over the Five Stripes, the 18-year-old midfielder and 20-year-old defender recognized how important the confidence gained from the run of form is for the national team’s pre-Olympic qualifying camp.

“Going into camp with confidence is important to get cohesion with the group,” McKenzie said. “Next summer is the Olympics and everybody is fighting for a spot.”

“Getting this many games is a big confidence builder for me,” Aaronson said. “I want to try and go in as confident as possible and play my game.”

McKenzie is making the natural progression from the U-20 World Cup team to the U-23 side that is preparing for Olympic qualifying in Mexico in March, while Aaronson is one of a few teenagers in the group. The U.S. men haven’t qualified for the Olympics in the last two cycles, and both players are eager to make the squad and turn the USA’s Olympic fortunes around.

The youngsters are joined by defender Auston Trusty and goalkeeper Matt Freese as representatives from the Union for the camp in Chula Vista, California and friendly versus Japan on Monday. 

“I think all the players that called in — I think there are a few other players that should’ve gotten called in too — but all the homegrowns here are amazing,” Aaronson said. “You can tell when everybody comes in they do really well. I think the Philadelphia Union homegrowns are going to make a really big deal over there.” 

Aaronson has benefited from a sharper focus in the final third. All three of his shots in the last two matches have hit the target compared to five from his first 27 of the campaign. 

“I’ve had so many chances this year and I haven’t been able to finish,” Aaronson said. “I think I’ve had 27 shots and have had a rough time finishing. I was working constantly on my finishing and getting better at it and it’s paying off.” 

McKenzie forced his way up the depth chart with his performances in training, and after a long spell out of the lineup, he has succeeded in back-to-back starts. 

Philadelphia Union defender Mark McKenzie (4) takes the field before the game against the Chicago Fire at SeatGeek Stadium. (Photo by Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports)

“For me personally, it’s just a matter of staying ready,” McKenzie said. “(Union head coach) Jim (Curtin) constantly reiterates that with everybody being ready when your name is called. The last few weeks I’ve just been grinding and trying to level up each and every day pushing the guys all around me. No matter whether I’m in the 18, I’m starting or I’m not rostered, I’m going to go in with the same mentality and that’s to fight.” 

Aaronson and McKenzie have dealt with competition to get into the Union’s first team throughout the Major League Soccer season, and they expect the same high level in California over the next week. 

“Everybody comes into camp fit and confident and ready to push each other,” McKenzie said. “The fact that we have that quality of players and that level that we hold ourselves to is definitely going to raise the level. I’m looking forward to the next cycle going up to the Olympics.” 

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