Brenden Aaronson, one of the
rare players to get called up to the U.S. national team in their rookie season, leads this year's crop of first-year MLS pros.
The 18-year-old midfielder is in Fairfax, Virginia,
preparing for the USA's Concacaf Nations League opener against Cuba on Friday, after helping the Philadelphia Union finish third in the Eastern Conference.
In recent years, Union academy
products as Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie
, Anthony Fontana
and Matt Real
have broken into the first team, but none played a bigger role in the Union's battle for the 2019
Eastern Conference title than Aaronson, who signed a Homegrown Player contract in September 2018.
Aaronson got his break when Mexican World Cup veteran Marco Fabian
red-carded in the second game of the season. He started and scored against defending champion Atlanta United in a 1-1 tie and held his starting spot as the Union went 6-1-1 in its next eight games.
Aaronson went on to make 25 starts -- the most of any rookie -- and finished with two goals and two assists. The Union was 12-4-6 in the first 22 games Aaronson started before its late slump
dropped it out of the race with NYCFC and Atlanta United for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Aaronson hails from Medford, New Jersey, and joined the Union youth system when he was
13 and entered the Union's high school program, the YSC Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, when he was a sophomore. He had been playing in the USL for Bethlehem Steel on an academy contract with plans to
attend Indiana University before turning pro.
Aaronson's emergence as a starter on the Union came so suddenly that he didn't get much consideration for the 2019 U.S. U-20 World Cup team
on which McKenzie and Real played.
Aaronson, whose younger brother Paxten
is on the U.S. U-16 national team, was the standout of the U.S. U-23 camp in September, but his impact on
the Union is what caught national team head coach Gregg Berhalter'
“There are two things that stand out about Brenden," Berhalter said in a statement after the
Nations League roster was announced. "The first thing is that he’s getting regular minutes, and the second is that he’s playing for a team that’s doing really well. We always look
for that combination. He’s a very agile player, very aware between the lines, able to give solutions offensively and very secure on the ball."