Sunday, November 27, 2022

Brenden Aaronson preps for World Cup, Leeds United


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CINCINNATI — On the final day of the Premier League season, Brenden Aaronson was with his girlfriend in a Vienna cafe watching Leeds United attempt to avoid relegation to England’s second division.

His own move to the world’s most popular soccer circuit hinged on the outcome.

Leeds’s survival May 22 would trigger his transfer — the second-largest in U.S. history — to the West Yorkshire club next season. Failure would leave him with RB Salzburg in Austria, where he had thrived for two years after leaving MLS’s Philadelphia Union.

While Aaronson stared at the TV, his girlfriend provided updates about Burnley’s match against Newcastle. Regardless of Leeds’s result at Brentford, a Burnley victory at home would doom Leeds’s — and his — Premier League hopes.

“It was on them,” Aaronson said Monday from U.S. national team training camp. “I wanted to be part of the club so bad; that game meant a lot to me. It was tough to watch it, but they got the job done.”

Burnley lost and, though a draw would have done the trick, Leeds left no doubt by winning on a goal deep in stoppage time.

Four days later, Leeds announced the $30 million acquisition of Aaronson, a 21-year-old attacker from Medford, N.J., who, 3½ years earlier, was paying his dues with Philadelphia’s developmental squad in Bethlehem, Pa. He signed a five-year contract with Leeds.

The only U.S. player to garner a larger transfer fee was Christian Pulisic moving to Chelsea from Germany’s Borussia Dortmund in 2019 for $70 million.

Starting this coming season, Aaronson and Pulisic — key figures in the U.S. attack ahead of the World Cup late this year in Qatar — will clash in the Premier League. Aaronson will also face U.S. regulars Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Ethan Horvath (with promoted Nottingham Forest) and Matt Turner, a New England Revolution goalkeeper who in late June will join Arsenal.

“The league is unbelievable,” Aaronson said. “I know that going into it, but it’s the best way to challenge myself as a player, being in the best league in the world. They’ve told me how hard it is. That’s something I thrive on.”

Aaronson will reunite with Leeds Manager Jesse Marsch, a Wisconsin-born, Princeton-educated former MLS midfielder hired by the club in February to skirt relegation. Two jobs prior, Marsch coached Aaronson in Salzburg.

“I know he will fit in here perfectly,” Marsch said.

From the archives: Jesse Marsch begins his next chapter

It’s been some time since Leeds raised a trophy. The last top-flight championship came in 1992, the season before the Premier League was born. The club last won the FA Cup in 1972 and was a finalist for the European Cup, the Champions League’s predecessor, in 1975. Between 2004 and 2020, Leeds was stuck in England’s second or third division.

Aaronson said the move was a “step I wanted to take.”

“It was the right time,” he said. “It was the right time to up my game by going to the Premier League. It’s definitely a risk, but a risk I was willing to take.”

The risk is getting lost in the crowd playing for a bigger club in a bigger league with greater roster competition. In Austria, Aaronson excelled in a lesser environment, starting 52 matches and scoring 13 goals across all competitions. He did, however, play 10 matches and post two goals at the highest level of European soccer, the UEFA Champions League.

The ramifications of having a smaller role on the club scene this coming season would carry over to the national team, which needs players in top form heading into the World Cup.

“A big part of playing for your national team is your club too,” Aaronson said. “You also have to play well for your country, but it’s also playing consistently week in and week out for your club.”

Aaronson understands what he’s getting into. Leeds supporters at Elland Road appreciate undying work ethic to counter stylish opponents from London, Manchester and Liverpool.

“They celebrate a tackle like a goal,” he said. “I am going to be that guy that’s not only going to be that creative outlet; I am going to be the guy that’s going to be working hard, too. That’s what Leeds is.”

Before reporting to Leeds training camp, Aaronson will aim to keep his stock high with the U.S. squad. The Americans will play four matches in a two-week span, starting Wednesday against World Cup-bound Morocco at Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium.

They’ll host another friendly Sunday against World Cup participant Uruguay in Kansas City, Kan., then play mandatory Concacaf Nations League games against Grenada on June 10 in Austin and in El Salvador on June 14.

The only other camp before the World Cup comes in September for two friendlies, likely against Asian confederation opponents at European venues.

When healthy, Aaronson was among U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter’s most reliable players during the 14-game qualifying competition. Berhalter’s wing options are abundant — Pulisic, Tim Weah, Gio Reyna, Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris — but he could also use Aaronson centrally.

Impact performances in June coupled with a strong start in Leeds would solidify Aaronson’s place in Berhalter’s plans.

Moving to the Premier League, Aaronson said, was “the perfect next jump because I am going to have ups and downs there, but it’s going to make me the player I am going to be in the future.”

Notes: Montreal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, one of a handful of fresh prospects called into camp, withdrew from the roster with an ankle injury suffered in an MLS match Saturday. No replacement was named, leaving 26 players on the squad.

Previously, New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson replaced Steffen (family reasons). …

FIFA approved Bayern Munich attacker Malik Tillman’s application to change affiliations, clearing him to play for the U.S. squad. The 20-year-old dual national had previously represented Germany.

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