By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
When your older brother is basically a Philadelphia Union icon, it leaves some big shoes to fill.
Brenden Aaronson only played about two seasons for the Union, and traded in Philadelphia for Austria when he was 20, but his journey is the stuff of local legend. He burst onto the MLS scene with a kind of skill, creativity, energy, and soccer IQ that few people expected out of the Philadelphia Union academy at the time. He quickly established himself as a starter in the first team. He was part of the squad that won the Union their first trophy—the 2020 Supporters’ Shield.
To this day, the Union still treat Aaronson as if he still plays for them. There’s a certain level of parental pride in the way people speak about Aaronson within the Union organization. It’s like sending a child off to college—you know they can’t stay at home forever, but even with all of their independent accomplishments and individual growth, they never quite stop being your child. It’s like, “Yeah, Brenden is doing amazing things over in Europe and for the national team, and we’re so happy for him...but he’s still one of ours. We’re where it all started for him.”
The wonderful thing is that the line didn’t end with Brenden. There was another Aaronson honing his skills in the Union’s academy—three years younger, same mop of curly hair, same height and build, but—according to many of the Union’s youth coaches—more talented.
It may sound hard to believe, considering the fact that Paxten Aaronson hasn’t been given quite the same level of belief as Brenden was when he first signed his Homegrown contract. Manager Jim Curtin seemingly threw much of his trust behind Brenden, while he’s looking to be a lot more cautious with Paxten. The younger Aaronson mainly comes off the bench, if he features in games at all. He’s most comfortable playing in the No. 10 role, a position he has to compete with mainly Jamiro Monteiro for. He’s part of a Union team that is no longer much of an underdog, that has been validated, that knows their worth. It’s much more competitive, especially when Aaronson is coming from what has now been coined as the best youth academy in the United States. And, of course, there’s the herculean task of breaking out of Brenden’s shadow.
Merely having his name on the first team roster is a testament to Paxten’s skill and ability. As Curtin once said in a press conference, “With the young guys, nothing is ever handed to them. We don’t just hand debuts out; we don’t just hand them minutes. They earn everything. And Paxten has earned every opportunity that he’s got through hard work in training. He’s been excellent in practice day in and day out…”
And make no mistake, Curtin rates the younger Aaronson highly.
“I do think Paxten is a kid that when he plays with our top group, our first group of players, our starters, it makes him that much better,” The Union manager said. “Similar to how you saw Brenden kind of start to thrive. Where games with Bethlehem Steel were almost difficult for Brenden, when you surround them with real talent and high-end talent, they’ll put them on the ball in the right spots.”
The brother-to-brother comparisons are inevitable, if done to death. Kacper Przybyłko admitted that “[Paxten’s] body movement [and] language is like his brother’s” and that it was “so funny to see.”
Although Curtin has also admitted to comparing the two, he also emphasized the fact that he’s not trying to bring in Paxten simply to fill the Brenden-shaped hole in the Union’s heart with another Aaronson.
“I’ve been trying to avoid the natural thing that everybody is going to do,” Curtin admitted. “He’s his own person, he’s his own player, he’s a great kid, and he deserved [his MLS debut]. It’s just the beginning, and he’s going to leave a big impact on the Philadelphia Union, and even beyond that.”
There are clearly big plans for Aaronson, and with Monteiro looking to leave the Union at the next available opportunity, the 18-year-old’s breakthrough season could be just over the horizon. For someone so young, he’s shown some incredible flashes of brilliance. (Could he have asked for a better debut goal?) As badly as fans might want him to prosper in the same fashion as his brother, forcing Paxten to grow up before he’s well and truly ready won’t do anyone any good. A player already bursting at the seams with talent can’t be burnt out before he has a chance to really show what he’s capable of.
Because, at the end of the day, he isn’t Brenden. And fans shouldn’t want him to be. He’ll grow at his own pace, he’ll play the way that suits him the best, and he’ll become the best version of the player that he was meant to be.