A Philadelphia-to-Europe Talent Pipeline Is a Model for U.S. Soccer

Brenden Aaronson landed in Salzburg, Austria, on Sunday and stepped through the arrival gates at an airport named after Mozart. His mother, Janell, had hoped to accompany him and help him settle in his new city before returning to their home in New Jersey, but COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented her from making the trip. Aaronson has never lived alone before, and he’s excited to acclimate himself to his new surroundings.

“I want to be there by myself; explore, try things on my own,” Aaronson told me via Zoom in late November.

Aaronson arrived in Austria to join Red Bull Salzburg after the team paid a reported $6 million transfer fee, plus add-ons, to acquire him from the Philadelphia Union in October. The move marked the latest milestone in what was a significant year for the 20-year-old creative midfielder.

In November, he was named to the 2020 MLS Best XI, the league’s equivalent to the All-NBA first team. He’s the first American midfielder to earn that distinction since 2016, which can be seen as a sign of the influx of foreign talent in MLS or an indictment of the league’s development of its American players—perhaps both. He made his debut for the U.S. men’s national team last February, a 1-0 win over Costa Rica, and scored his first goal last month in a 6-0 win over El Salvador. Now he joins Red Bull Salzburg, current leaders in the Austrian Bundesliga and winners of the past seven league titles, who will compete in the Europa League’s knockout stages in February after narrowly failing to qualify from their Champions League group, which included Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid.

The fee Red Bull Salzburg paid for Aaronson is, in isolation, far from noteworthy. In 2019, $7.35 billion was spent on transfer fees worldwide, twice as much as the combined salaries of every NBA player in 2019-20. Even in 2020, amid staggering financial losses brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, teams in the top five European leagues—England, Spain, France, Italy, and Germany—spent more than $3 billion on transfer fees in the summer window.

Aaronson’s transfer fee also pales in comparison to the record paid for an American men’s player, set in January 2019, when Christian Pulisic moved from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea for $73 million. And it’s significantly lower than the MLS record for an outgoing transfer when Newcastle bought Miguel Almiron from Atlanta FC for $27 million, also in January 2019.

Aaronson’s transfer is significant not for the dollar amount but for what it represents about youth development in American soccer. Despite playing only two seasons with the Union at the senior level, Aaronson had been training with the club since he was 10 years old. That earned him the distinction as a “homegrown player,” a classification given to players developed within an MLS team’s youth academy system who then signed their first professional contract with that team.

Typically, when an MLS team sells a player, the league office receives a portion of the fee. But a recent rule change, enacted in part to incentivize investment in youth development, allows teams to keep 100 percent of any fee paid for homegrown players. That means the Union will receive every dollar of Aaronson’s fee from Red Bull Salzburg, as well as any additional add-ons and performance-based incentives.

Sources close to the Union told me that the club spends approximately $6 million annually on its academy system, so periodically producing a player of Aaronson’s caliber means the investment can pay for itself. “Clubs having their own in-house farm system, which is foreign in other American sports, is essential in soccer,” says U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter. “Players end up being assets for the club.”

Richie Graham is a Union minority owner and the architect of the club’s academy system. He declined to confirm the exact figure the club invests in its youth system but agreed with Berhalter’s assessment. “We’ve built a value creation model,” he says of the Aaronson sale. “There’s a more sustainable model here for a soccer club to give the next generation behind him an even better chance.”

When the sale was reported in October, Aaronson says he received a flood of congratulatory texts from USMNT teammates like Pulisic, Gio Reyna, and Josh Sargent—all young Americans plying their trade in top European leagues. But each of those players eschewed MLS and signed their first professional contracts abroad. Aaronson, on the other hand, embarks on his European odyssey having successfully navigated the byzantine American soccer system.

He’s an important part of Berhalter’s promising young core of American talent, which is crucial to redeeming the USMNT’s reputation ahead of the 2022 World Cup. But Aaronson’s story is not about the Next Big Thing in American soccer. It’s about how subtle changes in priorities and increased economic investment can reveal a more sustainable operating model for MLS both domestically and in the global marketplace. It’s also about recalibrating a cultural question that has nagged American soccer for years. Talented young players always have been encouraged to go abroad, but Aaronson’s path—and the potential he represents—reveals how a young American can take something from his MLS experience with him when he does while also leaving something behind.

“Imagine a system where every kid who grew up in Boston would then play for either the Celtics or the Red Sox,” says Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin. “That’s what I tell my friends when I explain our academy system.”

I spoke to Curtin in late November, a few weeks after he was named MLS Coach of the Year, and before the Union were knocked out of the playoffs by the New England Revolution. Despite their early postseason exit, the Union had a remarkable season; they won the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the MLS club with the best regular-season record, for the first time since joining the league as an expansion team in 2010.

Curtin, 41, just completed his seventh season as Union head coach. He grew up in a Philadelphia suburb, rooting for Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham more than any soccer player, and was a two-sport star in high school in basketball and soccer. And while Division I programs recruited him in both sports, he opted to play the latter at Villanova; in 2001, he was picked by the Chicago Fire in the third round of the MLS SuperDraft. He was, in his own words, a grinder, playing out a respectable, nine-year career with the Fire and now-defunct Chivas USA. Unsure of what he wanted to do after retiring as a player, he joined the Union in 2010 ahead of their inaugural season as a part-time coach at the academy level. It wasn’t exactly a posh assignment for a former pro.

“Quite literally, I was coaching kids 18 months up to 4 years old,” Curtin says.

The Philadelphia 76ers are synonymous with “the Process,” but consider the future coach of the city’s professional soccer franchise instructing toddlers while working his way up to the head job. Curtin remembers being curled up in the fetal position on the goal line, getting blasted with balls by a bunch of kids, when he wondered whether he made the right choice. “Jesus, I just played against David Beckham,” he remembers thinking at the time, “How the hell did I get here?”

Graham became part of the Union’s ownership group in 2011, and it didn’t take him long to notice Curtin. He thought Curtin represented the culture he wanted to instill at all levels of the club, one shaped by a local Philadelphia ethos. “The first time I saw him, he was working with a group of 6-year-olds, and he was really invested in it,” Graham says. “A lot of times you get an ex-pro, and he’s checking his phone; he’s not interested at all.”

Like Curtin, Graham also grew up playing soccer in Pennsylvania before leaving the Keystone State to attend a private ski racing school in Vermont called the Burke Mountain Academy. Founded in 1970, the academy provided elite instruction in a controlled environment. Thirty-six future Olympians have trained there, including three-time World Cup overall champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin. Graham wondered why, if the U.S. could produce dominant athletes in a predominantly European sport like alpine skiing, it couldn’t do the same in soccer.

“The U.S. really has a lot of talent,” Graham says. “It just needs to get nurtured and the environments need to be more thoughtful.”

Graham took a lead role in launching the Union’s youth academy. He had studied some of the sport’s best systems—FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, and Ajax, among others—and set out to apply the lessons he learned in Philadelphia.

It was a gradual process designed to avoid poking the bear that is America’s $17 billion youth sports complex. An early iteration of the club’s academy system was called the Union Juniors and consisted mostly of a weekly training session for local kids.

“The idea behind it was that all the best players from Philly, New Jersey, and Delaware would still play for their local club teams, so we weren’t stealing their players, but we would provide supplemental training one day a week,” Curtin says. It was also a chance to get the area’s talent comfortable wearing the Union’s navy-and-gold uniform.

With the initial infrastructure seeds planted, the next phase was to attract players. MLS rules designate a loosely defined geographic area called a “homegrown territory” for each club, determining where it can draw talent from. For the Union, this meant a 75-mile radius from the club’s home stadium. Any talent within a team’s catchment area is fair game, and the Union were the first to employ two full-time scouts to find it.

“Our league is set up in a way that if you develop the best kids in Philly, you get to keep them,” Curtin says. “They’re yours. You don’t have to go and sign them or draft them.”

Aaronson was among the local kids who showed up for the weekly training sessions, arriving as a 9-year-old with his father, Rusty, who played college soccer at Monmouth University and had trained his son in the backyard and basement of their suburban south New Jersey home.

Even among those in his age group, Aaronson didn’t pass what Curtin derisively calls the “eyeball test.” He was much smaller than most of the other kids and didn’t fit the ill-conceived profile of what an elite American athlete is supposed to look like, even at such a young age: big, strong, and fast.

“When I was younger, I was always the smallest guy on the field,” Aaronson says. “I couldn’t out-physical people, I couldn’t run past people. It was more of me thinking about the game.”

But when Aaronson had a ball at his feet, Curtin could immediately see his talent. “He was doing things at 9 years old that made you think, ‘OK, I can’t promise this kid will be a pro, because he’s 9 and still believes in Santa Claus, but he’s doing things that you can’t teach.’”

Aaronson eventually decided to leave his local club and formally join the Union academy, which at the time had graduated from offering supplemental training sessions to fielding three competitive teams at the U14, U16, and U18 age levels.

The most obvious difference between playing for an MLS academy and an unaffiliated elite youth club is the cost. Fees for the latter can amount to upward of $5,000 annually; an MLS youth academy such as the Union’s covers all expenses. But there’s a significant tactical difference between them, as one U.S. Soccer insider told me. Elite travel clubs prioritize playing—and winning—games, which becomes the barometer for how players and teams are judged, rather than the individual players’ development.

“When you think of travel soccer, there’s a lot of good things happening,” Graham says. “But a lot of it is a nightmare.”

That could have hindered the development of a player like Aaronson, who multiple people described to me as a “late bloomer.” According to Berhalter, a professional club’s academy system is built to manage these kinds of players. “When you think about clubs like Ajax, they deal with late bloomers all the time,” he says. “They’ll play them down an age group so they get confidence. They know exactly when to give them that challenge, when to pull back. That’s all part of the detail that the clubs work with.”

For much of the past decade, U.S. Soccer tried to take on this role by imposing training and coaching standards within its Development Academy system, but those efforts were shuttered in April amid financial constraints brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, ceding the floor to MLS. That’s fine, Berhalter says. “We all have a part to play, but the driver is MLS clubs.”

Aaronson thrived in the Union’s academy environment. “You could tell the level was a lot higher and I had to perform because you actually had to make the squad,” Aaronson says. “And from there, I had to keep performing. It was a very professional environment for such a young age.”

Philadelphia Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson follows a play during an MLS soccer match against the New York City FC on July 9.
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

After his freshman year of high school, Aaronson enrolled at the YSC Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, a private grade 7-12 boys’ school founded by Graham in 2013, inspired by his time at the Burke Mountain Academy and his study of European soccer academy systems. It’s the first of its kind in the United States, a soccer-specific school catering to students looking for an elite training environment. It has a unique affiliation with the Union—many students are members of the Union academy and the training curriculum is designed and implemented by Union staff.

Five days a week, Aaronson left his house at 6 a.m. to make the 90-minute trip to YSC Academy. He calls it a big sacrifice, particularly for his parents, who had to log countless miles driving their son while he tried to do his homework without getting carsick. But it allowed him to train twice a day, three days a week, with one session on Mondays and Fridays—a regimen that more closely followed that of his peer group in Europe.

In 2018, when Aaronson was 17, he turned down a scholarship to play at Indiana University, one of the country’s best men’s NCAA programs, to sign a homegrown player contract with the Union. His guaranteed minimum salary was just over $95,000 in his first year, not bad for a teenager starting his first job while still living with his parents.

The decision to skip college and sign a professional contract may not have been a particularly controversial one for a player of Aaronson’s caliber, but Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said pursuing college soccer would have put Aaronson on a completely different trajectory, one that could have curtailed his ambition of playing abroad.

“He probably would have lost three or four years in the university,” Tanner says. “He could probably make it to become a good MLS player, and he’s gifted enough, but if you’re in a system where you train probably for four months, how should you get better?”

The Union’s investment in Aaronson’s development will net them the $6 million transfer fee plus a reported $3 million in potential performance bonuses, according to Jonathan Tannenwald at the Philadelphia Inquirer. But there’s another possible financial windfall in the deal: a sell-on fee, or “subsequent fee,” will be paid to the Union by Salzburg if Aaronson is sold to another club. Depending on the terms of the deal, the Union could net an additional 10-20 percent of future sales.

“We looked at [the contract] and said, ‘This is fantastic,’” Dimitrios Efstathiou, MLS senior vice president of player relations and competition, tells me. Efstathiou works with clubs on finalizing the terms of deals such as Aaronson’s, and says he spends the lion’s share of his time talking through the specific section of the agreement that relates to subsequent transfer fees.

“If you are transferring a player who is 20 years old, like Aaronson, you look at what the predictive curve of value of a player is across their life span. He is arguably just getting started in his upward curve,” Efstathiou says. “Oftentimes, players make a minimum of one if not two transfers during that upwards trajectory and if you really want to put your money where your mouth is, you put a lot more into that aspect of the deal.”

For most of the first two decades of the league’s existence, players were seen less as appreciating assets on a predictive curve and more as expendable commodities in the mode of the NFL. One league insider told me that MLS personnel budgets didn’t even include a line item for revenue tied to outgoing transfers until recently. The league and its teams are starting to realize the benefit of investing in players’ continuing development—and the potential revenue-making opportunities that accompany it.

When I asked Efstathiou why it took MLS so long to participate in this fundamental aspect of the global soccer economy, he said the answer was simple: growth.

“It took us some time to, number one, recognize that we could hang,” he says, “and number two, that we have actually built the infrastructure to sustain that on an ongoing basis.”

Tanner, who previously worked in Germany with Bundesliga club Hoffenheim and was responsible for bringing future Liverpool star Roberto Firmino to Europe, said MLS needed to improve its talent level to participate in the global marketplace.

“In order to compete with European talent, you need to be really good in your development,” Tanner says. “If they are not better than their own, then you won’t have a chance to sell them. It’s pretty easy.”

For much of its history, MLS has earned a reputation (sometimes unfairly) as a retirement league for international stars looking for a big payday and a soft landing for the final years of their career. David Beckham was the poster child of this era; the league adopted the “designated player rule” in 2007 to accommodate his arrival with the L.A. Galaxy, allowing clubs to sign players outside the league’s rigid salary cap.

“Everybody took the approach to buy super-expensive, foreign superstars so we could sell tickets, get revenue, and sell jerseys,” remembers Curtin, who was playing for the Chicago Fire when Beckham arrived.

(Here, I should probably mention that I worked for the league in the heady Beckham days of 2007, but as an MLS intern my interactions with key decision-makers like commissioner Don Garber consisted mostly of me complimenting his choice of blazer in the elevator.)

Beckham was an unqualified success story for the league, but the track record of designated player signings has been hit and miss. By 2012, the average age for newly signed DPs was 30 years old, while the average age of newcomers leaguewide was over 27. That showed in the product.

“Looking back, the league was very slow, and not that qualitative,” says Tanner, in all his Teutonic candor, of his first introduction to the league in 2012. “It was hard to watch, to be honest.”

And while “the Beckham effect” will be debated for years to come, arguably a more impactful rule change from 2007 was the requirement that all teams establish some sort of youth academy system. Though the efforts remain wildly uneven—particularly amid the league’s rapid expansion (from 20 clubs in 2016 to 30 by 2023)—some clubs, like the Union, made it a priority. They realized that they couldn’t go toe-to-toe with the wealthier clubs and instead needed to create an infrastructure that produced talent, rather than try to acquire it themselves. Union officials believe they spend more on player development than any other club in the league.

“Every successful club in the world has some real presence of their own developed players in that system,” Efstathiou says. “You cannot have a successful club at a global level without that mix. It’s impossible.”

It took MLS time to build the infrastructure to sustain player development, both from a brick-and-mortar perspective and from a personnel perspective. “Those are generational decisions,” Efstathiou explains. “You don’t see the fruits of that labor until seven to 10 years later. That’s not because you’re not good at what you do, but kids take some time to grow.”

In 2018, Garber made headlines when he unexpectedly told reporters at the annual State of the League press conference that after spending $100 million annually on player development, MLS needed to “become more of a selling league”:

“We have been buying [players] for so long and as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment that we have to make in player development,” he said. “We’ve got to have something that turns this model around or else it’s going to be unsustainable.”

In other words, the owners’ investments had finally started to mature, and they were ready to reap the rewards. That year, the Vancouver Whitecaps sold Canadian teenager Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich for a reported $22 million, and goalkeeper Zack Steffen and midfielder Tyler Adams were sold to Manchester City and RB Leipzig, respectively, in multimillion-dollar deals.

The league also has been getting younger. Expansion clubs like Atlanta FC and LAFC have used DP spots to sign young South American players—Uruguayan Diego Rossi made his debut for LAFC at age 19 and won this year’s Golden Boot award as the league’s top goal scorer. In 2020, the average age in the league dropped below 26 for the first time since 2007.

“The beauty of Major League Soccer is its ability to pivot,” says Berhalter, the USMNT coach. “To me, the identity of the league right now is a really strong, youth-focused league—younger foreign players, younger American players. And I think the investment in youth development is showing.”

As a still-young pro sports league wrapping up its 25th season, the MLS is trying to achieve some sort of brand identity that the wider American public—and curious observers worldwide—can understand. Who are we and how do we stack up against the best? This reductionist burden fuels an insecurity that’s unique to MLS in the wider American sports landscape. The NFL, for instance, doesn’t have to worry about its identity as a football league. It can merely exist, for better or for worse, and that’s enough.

Part of the reason for this constant reinvention simply could be that the league is maturing beyond its awkward years. Perhaps it can begin to embrace the disparate parts and enjoy the ride.

“What I like personally is that there’s diversity in this league,” Tanner says. “You can’t just go in one direction. That won’t make you successful as a league.”

Aaronson’s movement is the most striking thing about watching him play in person. Curtin describes him as almost playing in the future, two or three passes ahead of the game. Tanner, the Union’s sporting director, describes him as “a tempo dribbler who very seldom slows down and has a good view of the game.” He’s a blur of perpetual activity, with all the requisite traits of a no. 10—creativity, technique, and playmaking. “It’s a great spot for me because I like to have the freedom to find the game and take people on and make stuff happen,” he tells me. “You basically have to know what you’re going to do before you get the ball, because it’s tight in there and you don’t have much time.”

The overall effect is like witnessing a getaway driver after a big score, an impression that probably comes to mind because Aaronson bears a resemblance to the actor Ansel Elgort from Baby Driver. You can almost picture him listening to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” as he peppers through-balls across the field.

In many ways, Red Bull Salzburg is an ideal landing spot. They have a proven track record of developing young players, exposing them to high-level European competition before selling them to bigger clubs. Sadio Mané spent parts of three seasons in Salzburg before moving to Southampton, and, eventually, Liverpool. Erling Haaland played there for a year before moving to Borussia Dortmund in January 2020. Most recently, the 20-year-old Hungarian playmaker Dominik Szoboszlai moved to Red Bull Leipzig for $27.5 million, a move that possibly frees up minutes for Aaronson.

Then there’s the small matter of the Red Bull Salzburg coach, Jesse Marsch. The Wisconsin native, who greeted Aaronson at the airport when he arrived in Salzburg, is one of few American managers in Europe and just so happens to be a former teammate and good friend of Curtin’s, factors that contributed to Aaronson’s move.

Aaronson’s departure is a tough loss for the Union franchise. He was one of the team’s best players, and arguably the most popular, featuring in the top 10 in league jersey sales this year. The Union struggle for relevance in the Philadelphia sports landscape, and an exciting young talent, particularly one with strong ties to the club—Aaronson’s family were season-ticket holders since the inaugural season—is a marketing department’s dream. Yet his transfer creates new opportunities.

“They have the proof of concept,” says Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “That was the really big breakthrough that they needed. People are now going to come and say, ‘Who’s the next Brenden Aaronson?’”

It didn’t take long to find the answer. The Union announced Thursday that they’ve reached an agreement to sell Aaronson’s teammate and 2020 Best XI defender Mark McKenzie to Belgian club Genk for a multimillion-dollar fee—reported to be $6 million—plus performance-based incentives. The deal also includes a sell-on fee. McKenzie, 21, is another product of the Union’s academy system, joining the Union Juniors youth team when he was 11 years old. He signed a homegrown player contract with the club at age 18. And like Aaronson, he made his debut with the USMNT last year against Costa Rica and is considered a top American prospect. “With two record transfers over the past few months, it further solidifies our belief in our ideology of developing young players through our academy,” Tanner said in a statement announcing McKenzie’s transfer.

Mark McKenzie of Philadelphia Union passes the ball against the Montreal Impact at Subaru Park on October 11.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

McKenzie and Aaronson’s departures have left massive holes in the Union’s starting 11. And yet, the club feels confident in the talent pipeline it’s spent years (and millions of dollars) constructing. One such player rising through the ranks is a creative midfielder cut from the same cloth as Brenden and who was recently signed to a homegrown contract: his 17-year-old brother, Paxten.

The Union’s supporters can at least take solace in the big picture. The Union are developing players not just for the benefit of the club, but also for the U.S. national team. Perhaps when the U.S. hosts the World Cup in 2026, the national team will feature multiple players from the greater Philadelphia metro area.

That’s still years away. At present, the stakes are clear for Aaronson.

“He’s going to a club that needs to be used as a stepping stone,” says Berhalter, who will be following his progress closely. “He’s in a good spot, with a good coach, good club, good structure. Can it work? Can he go to Austria and then move on from there? That’s going to set up his whole career.”

The American system helped deliver him there. Now we’ll see whether it worked.

Greg Groggel is an executive producer at the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Channel. He’s based in Philadelphia and has written for Vice, New York magazine, and Sports Illustrated. He’s previously launched Men in Blazers and Garbage Time With Katie Nolan.

About Antoinette G. Tucker

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