The storyline was too perfect.
In a year when Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi won his first World Cup, a kid from South Jersey known as the “Medford Messi” appeared in his first contest. Thanks to Brenden Aaronson, Medford is now known internationally.
From youth soccer in the township, to working his way up through the Philadelphia Union, to playing in the Champions and Premier leagues, Aaronson’s ambitions have kept him looking to the future. In a matter of years, the 22-year old has checked off box after soccer box, most recently as a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“It definitely took a bit to set in,” Aaronson noted. “…It was pretty nerve-wracking moments coming into games like that, but it was an amazing experience for me, and to be part of a team that made some history was amazing.”
As a kid, Aaronson’s sports interest gravitated toward Europe and watching teams like Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea. A midfielder and winger, one of his early idols was Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard.
Aaronson came from a soccer family; his dad Rusty played college soccer at Monmouth. The elder Aaronson grew up during the height of the original North American Soccer League, even playing in a New Jersey high school all-star game before a New York Cosmos game at Giants Stadium.
“The Cosmos, at the time, were drawing 60,000 fans on average,” Rusty recalled. “We got to go to those games, but that was at the very end. When we got out of college, there was a dead period.”
Soccer in North America then grew exponentially, with the U.S.-hosted 1994 World Cup reigniting the sport’s popularity nationwide. The formation of Major League Soccer in 1996 cemented that impact, but it would take another 15 years for Philadelphia to have a team. That finally happened on March 25, 2010, when the Philadelphia Union played their first match. In the stands on April 10 – for the Union’s first home match – were the Aaronsons.
Up to that point, Aaronson, his brother Paxten and close friends, JD and Zach Wagner had no local team to root for. But they grew up playing in a retrofitted soccer haven in the basement of the Aaronsons’ home in Medford, and quickly tore up the local scene.
“JD and Brenden are the same age, and Zach and Paxten are almost the same age,” said Drew Wagner, Shawnee High’s girls soccer coach and Aaronson’s former youth coach. “We started getting the four boys together and every time they got together, they wanted to play soccer. Things just developed from there.”
“When he was 9, 10 years old, I told people that [Brenden] was going to play for the national team,” Drew added. “I could tell back then. He was so driven. All he wanted to do was play soccer.”
Aaronson proved a crafty player who could weave through defenders and create multiple opportunities. His shorter size didn’t affect a masterful skill set that got noticed by the Union when Aaronsoon attended its camps.
“I was looking back through my notes, and I usually put a tick next to the players I like, and I had three ticks beside Brenden’s name,” recalled Tommy Wilson, Philadelphia Union director of academy and professional development. “He was the only one of 30 players who had three ticks besides his name.
“There was something I and others saw in him, but that potential needed to be realized, and that was something that Brenden did really well.”
Trips to various academies were often quite the commute, sometimes taking upwards of two hours, but Aaronson’s passion for the sport kept motivating him. He had even more to prove as one of the smaller athletes on the field.
“When I was about 10 or 11, I was making trips up to Chester or to camps in King of Prussia, (Pa.), going to these places and trying out all the time,” he remembered. “I think seeing that and going to the games, most of all, is what really pushed me to actually make that next step, because I wanted to reach that level.”
Aaronson got to that next level in 2017, when he was called up to Bethlehem Steel FC, the Union’s affiliate/feeder club, and in September 2018, when he played for Philadelphia’s first team. He made his Major League Soccer debut on March 17, 2019, when he bagged a goal in his team’s 1-1 draw against Atlanta United.
Philadelphia turned out to be a stepping stone for Aaronson, who made 51 league appearances for the Union and entered international play by signing with Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg in October 2020.
But Aaronson never forgot his roots.
“Soccer ends,” Rusty said. “Being a good human being never ends … His best friends in the world are his high-school friends. He’s not caught up in social media. He understands that football is a short part of his life. We raised him early to look people in the eye the right way, to give people the time of day.”
Salzburg was just the beginning; the English Premier League, the league Aaronson grew up watching, came calling, led by Leeds United. Aaronson’s international career with the American team was blossoming, and he made his U.S. men’s national team debut at the age of 19 on February 1, 2020.
It proved the perfect storm: Not only was Aaronson starting for a Premier League club, but later in 2022, he made the 26-man roster headed to Qatar.
“It was definitely a huge moment in my career,” he noted. “Not many people can say they’ve ever played in a World Cup or been selected for a World Cup. In that moment, a lot of emotions came over. You know it’s such a huge deal for your country. It was an amazing feeling, genuinely.”
Aaronson was used off the bench in Qatar, but played during the 66th minute of the U.S. team’s opening game against Wales on Nov. 21.That’s when he put Medford on the world map.
Now that the Premier League season has resumed, Aaronson’s attention has turned back to Leeds, but representing Medford in front of millions was unforgettable.
“I love representing my hometown,” he said.