Brenden Aaronson: Leeds, relegation, anti-U.S. ‘noise’, Union Berlin and what’s next

“It’s just been tough to get a rhythm,” Brenden Aaronson says. “And I think that’s everything for a footballer — it’s just finding your rhythm and confidence.”

“Tough” is a word Aaronson uses a lot right now, which is not surprising in the circumstances.

It is Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours after Union Berlin were knocked out of the DFB Pokal by Stuttgart, condemning them to an 11th straight defeat in all competitions. On Saturday, against Eintracht Frankfurt, that losing streak was extended to 12 matches, leaving Union third from bottom in the Bundesliga.

For Aaronson, who joined Union on a season-long loan in the summer on the back of suffering relegation from the Premier League with Leeds United, it must feel like a never-ending cycle of misery.

In fact, the 23-year-old could be forgiven for saying he’d rather not talk about any of it — whether that be Union Berlin, relegation with Leeds or losing matches.

Instead, Aaronson offers a warm handshake, pulls up a chair in one of the sponsor’s suites at the Stadion An der Alten Forsterei, Union’s home in the east of Berlin, and answers every question.

Aaronson talks about a loss of confidence at the end of last season, about being told by his coach that he was putting too much pressure on himself, about hitting the gym to build his strength, about how proud he felt representing the USMNT at the World Cup finals, about letting the fans down at Elland Road, about still loving Leeds, about ignoring social media, and about Union Berlin’s incredible supporters.

More than anything, Aaronson talks about refusing to allow what has happened since moving to Leeds for £25million ($30.8m) from Red Bull Salzburg last year define him and about his determination to use the remainder of this season to turn things around at Union Berlin (who The Athletic has been embedded with this season) both for the club and for himself.

“It’s like I always say, the show must go on,” Aaronson adds, reflecting on his recent disappointments.

“You have to pick your head up.

“I like to look at videos of guys speaking about the downs in their career. I think (Wilfried) Zaha said something recently about when he was at Manchester United and he wasn’t going to let his failure at Man United destroy his career.”

Aaronson smiles briefly.

“I feel like, mentally, I’ve grown so much,” he adds. “I could maybe be more negative in a situation like this, but I feel really positive. I feel like I’m still trying things on the pitch and just waiting for my chance again to show that I can play.”

Darmstadt, August 26, 2023

It is the second match of the Bundesliga season and Union are leading 1-0 when Aaronson is shown a second yellow card.

Despite playing with 10 men for 70 minutes, Union went on to win the game 4-1, but news of Aaronson’s dismissal (which seemed incredibly harsh) caused a stir on social media.

A stir is being polite. A Twitter pile-on would be a better description after Leeds United fans — and clearly not all of them feel this way — peppered Union’s account with messages.

Union decided enough was enough and posted a message of their own.

“Brenden Aaronson is a superbly skilled footballer and a young man who doesn’t deserve any of the s*** being thrown at him here. Keep it to your own sites, please.”

Aaronson looks surprised when that tweet is read out to him two months later. He didn’t know about it at the time and, until now, nobody has mentioned it to him.

Jacob Sweetman, one of Union’s media staff, is sitting in on our interview and was responsible for posting that message.

Aaronson looks across the room at Sweetman. “Thanks for defending me,” he says, his voice quiet and sincere. “I appreciate that.”

A frustrated Aaronson after his red card, following which he was defended by the club (Jörg Halisch/Getty Images)

Social media can be a brutal place at times and it is easy to understand why Aaronson and so many other professional footballers these days choose to ignore what is posted on there. It feels as though there is more to lose than gain by reading what everyone thinks of you, especially for a young player who has become a lightning rod for criticism.

“The good things and the bad things I don’t want to know about — I don’t care,” Aaronson says. “All I care about is my dad’s opinion, my agent’s opinion, and my inner circle and, of course, the coach.”

“Aaronson has shown glimpses of skill and nobody behind the scenes at Leeds has anything but warm words for a young player who one staff member described as the ‘ideal son-in-law’, adding that he stays after training every day to rehearse set pieces and finishing. The staff member added, however, that the emotional toll of the season has weighed heavily on his shoulders and he has, at times, overthought matters as confidence ebbed away from his play.”

Aaronson listens to that extract, which is taken from an article that was published by The Athletic in May, when Leeds were on the brink of relegation from the Premier League and the post-mortem was already underway at Elland Road.

The “ideal son-in-law” reference prompts Aaronson to chuckle. As for the wider sentiment, he nods in agreement.

“I would say that’s a fair quote,” Aaronson replies. “The glimpses, I think, are true. I think I showed in the first half of the season why I was proud of the way I played. And I think everybody in my inner circle was thinking that I might have a little bit of a harder time getting used to the league. The first couple of games, I played really well and then I had some other good games in there, too.”

Aaronson pauses for a moment. “At the end, it was really tough, confidence-wise, to go out there. I didn’t feel like I was playing my best. I feel like I was letting my team-mates down, I felt like I was letting the fanbase down at times.

“You’re thinking all the time. You’re not just playing. And I think when I’m playing my best is when I’m enjoying the game and I’m in a flow state. There’s no thinking, there’s just playing and just doing what I feel and that creative side comes out when I’m in the flow.

“Even this season, I feel like I’ve had many times where I’ve been in the flow, but the goals and assists just haven’t popped in yet. But they will.

“I think that’s kind of like what the season was like for a lot of the guys (at Leeds). It wasn’t just me.”

Aaronson felt he started positively but later lost confidence at Leeds (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

When things were going wrong at Leeds, Aaronson’s response was to stay out after training and practise even harder. Another bag of footballs, another shooting session.

Away from the pitch, he was preoccupied with football, too, especially his stats — he finished the season with one goal and three assists in the Premier League.

“You’re driving yourself crazy about scoring and assisting, then it starts to take over your mind and that’s all you care about,” Aaronson explains. “So then the other things, like the (general) play, starts to go down because you want to score so bad, you wanna assist so bad.

“I remember talking to Jesse (Marsch, the former Leeds coach) about it. He was like, ‘You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself. You’re so focused on it all the time, about scoring goals and getting assists, that you’re not letting yourself just play’.”

Perhaps all of that is to be expected. Aaronson, after all, was only 21 years old when he signed for Leeds — for a fee that, he says, never bothered him, but arguably raised expectations among the fanbase to an unrealistic level.

Looking back, it was a chaotic season for Leeds full stop. The team was led by four different managers — Marsch, the then-under-23 coach Michael Skubala, Javi Gracia and Sam Allardyce — and Leeds registered only three Premier League victories after the season resumed in December following the World Cup in Qatar.

For Aaronson, who came off the bench in all four of the USMNT matches in Qatar, the biggest sporting event on the planet passed by in a blur.

“I’m proud to be an American and to represent my country in the World Cup is the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life. To have my family name on the back, it was honestly a dream come true,” he says.

“But when I look back, it feels like it’s a fever dream because it just went by like this (clicks his fingers). And then I’m flying (out of Qatar), I had three days off after the World Cup and then I was back in Leeds, already getting ready for the next Prem game.”

Last season was relentless in that respect. Aaronson started every Premier League game until Nottingham Forest away in February, when he somehow made the substitutes’ bench despite spending the lead-up to the match in hospital with appendicitis.

“I was watching the (San Francisco) 49ers (on TV) because I’m a 49ers fan and just going to bed like a normal night and then all of a sudden I wake up and I’m rolling in pain because I have appendicitis,” he explains. “The next thing I know, I’m going to the hospital and I’m in for three days. They were deciding whether or not I should take it out. They said I could. But they said that if I don’t, then you can just take medication and it will be better. It was just a crazy time. I came out of the hospital, trained one day and then was in the squad for the next game.”

That desire to carry on playing is typical of Aaronson. Whatever criticism is thrown at him, he could never be accused of not trying his best — something his father ingrained in him from a young age, when Aaronson would return to pre-season with a demand to win the bleep test (a continuous running exercise that measures fitness levels).

A natural athlete, Aaronson covers a phenomenal amount of ground in matches, pressing and chasing down lost causes, as he demonstrated when he forced the Chelsea ’keeper Edouard Mendy into a mistake early last season, leading to the midfielder’s only goal for Leeds.

But there were questions around other aspects of Aaronson’s game at Leeds, in particular his physicality and whether he was strong enough to play in the Premier League.

Aaronson knows this topic well. He has been here before — probably more times than he cares to remember.

When he was coming through the academy at Philadelphia Union, Aaronson’s size — he was a late developer and much smaller than the players he was up against — threatened to hold him back. “You have no idea the therapy sessions in that car,” Rusty, Aaronson’s father, told The Athletic two years ago.

Aaronson says his body is not naturally a “Prem-type” player but believes he adapted (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

That backdrop leaves you wondering whether Aaronson will roll his eyes when the topic is brought up again now, but that’s not his style at all.

Instead, he responds candidly when asked what he thinks about the idea that, physically, it may have been too big an adjustment to expect him to go straight from the Austrian Bundesliga to the intensity of playing every week in the Premier League.

“I think that it’s fair,” Aaronson says. “I have a body type that’s not, I guess, a Prem-type player. I’m not the biggest, I’m not the most physical. But I disagree that I think that it makes the biggest difference. If you look at the best players in the world, (Andres) Iniesta, Xavi, (Luka) Modric, they’re strong guys, but they’re not like Virgil van Dijk.

“I think since that last year I’ve gotten stronger because I’ve been in the weight room a lot more. I work on it every day. I try to get stronger every single day. But I think that I learned a lot more because I’ve always been the smallest one. So I’ve always had to be between the lines and be smart.

“Also, during parts of the season last year, I was trying to draw fouls around the box and people thought, ‘Oh, he’s going down too easy’. But that was just me trying to get fouls. So it’s a little bit of both. But I think I can definitely get stronger.”

Relegation was a collective failure at Leeds — the owners, board, coaches and players all have to take some level of responsibility — but every person will have dealt with the experience in their own way.

For Aaronson, who had come from a totally different culture at Salzburg and Philadelphia, last season sounds like it was a shock to the system.

“I think going through something like that and being as young as… I mean, I’ve never been in a situation like that in my life. I came from Philadelphia Union, then I was in Salzburg; we won everything in Salzburg. I was never used to losing. Even in my MLS career, we were always winning.

“I came to Leeds and it was just different.

“But I think that at the end of the season when you get relegated… you just feel like you’ve let a lot of people down.”

There were three scenarios for Aaronson in the summer: stay with Leeds in the Championship, go out on loan or move permanently.

A clause in Aaronson’s contract — and he was one of many players at Leeds in this position — enabled him to join another club on loan provided his salary was covered in full.

Union Berlin, who had finished fourth in the Bundesliga and qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history, were quick to show interest — at a time when Leeds were without a coach and going through a period of upheaval behind the scenes. On the face of it, Aaronson and Union’s style of play felt like a good fit.

“As soon as the season was over, Union came in, probably three days after (Leeds) being relegated,” Aaronson explains. “Right away, they wanted me. And as a player, feeling wanted is probably the biggest thing in where you wanna go.

“That’s another reason why I went to Leeds — they wanted me really bad. From that January when Marcelo (Bielsa) was there, to when Jesse came, they stayed in contact.”

Aaronson is under contract with Leeds for another three years after this season. Could he return and play for them again?

“For sure, it’s possible. It’s not done and dusted or anything like that,” Aaronson says. “I love the club. I love the guys that I was there with, the connections I made. It was just tough the way it ended.

“I felt like this was the best decision that I could make — playing in the Bundesliga and playing in the Champions League — to help my career and get me better. So that’s why I made the decision.”

Aaronson’s affection for Leeds comes across as genuine. From his point of view, there is no friction or ill-feeling because of how last season played out. In fact, the only time he looks mildly annoyed during this interview is when a question is asked about the aftermath of relegation and the clear sense that a section of the Leeds fanbase had turned against the U.S. influx at Leeds, bearing in mind Marsch has previously been coach and Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie played alongside Aaronson last season.

Was Aaronson aware of any of that tension?

“No, I didn’t hear anything about it,” he replies. “Excuse my language, but I don’t give a s***. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t really care what other people say. I don’t care if it was an American thing or anything like that. It’s just noise.”

Aaronson was part of an American influx at Leeds (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Aaronson, in short, was focused solely on what happened on the pitch at Leeds and nothing has changed now. He is still in touch with his former team-mates and delighted to see that Leeds, who are third in the Championship, are on the up again.

“I try to stay in contact with all of the players as best I can,” he says. “I texted Cry (Crysencio Summerville) the other day for his birthday. I see a lot of guys doing great there right now, so I’m really happy for them. I don’t have any bitter thoughts or anything like that because I just pride myself on being as positive as I can and rooting for my friends and the team I played for last year. It looks like it’s clicking right now and it’s awesome to see.”

Unfortunately, it’s a different story at Union. A landmark season that promised so much has unravelled in a way that nobody could have imagined. The narrow Champions League defeats against Real Madrid and Braga felt particularly cruel — Union conceded 94th-minute goals in both games — but the club’s domestic form is alarming.

Aaronson’s game time has been limited until now — five starts and 416 minutes across 12 appearances. On Saturday, he briefly came up against his younger brother, Paxten, who was brought on in the closing minutes for Eintracht Frankfurt; a proud moment for the Aaronson family and a storyline that would have been celebrated far more on another day, but not when Union were 3-0 down.

It is hard to escape the feeling that Aaronson and Union, who face Napoli away in the Champions League tonight (Wednesday), both need a little bit of luck and one of those moments in front of goal on which a whole season can turn.

The header Aaronson nodded agonisingly wide in the 85th minute against Braga, when the game was tied 2-2, springs to mind.

“That’s kind of been the story for me so far, as I’ve had a lot of good chances, but I just haven’t converted yet,” Aaronson says. “I’m working on my finishing every day, I wanna get better. But that’s what happens as a footballer; you’re going through things like this and you just have to keep telling yourself, ‘I know I can score goals’, and they’ll come.”

That Aaronson neither looks nor sounds downbeat says much about both his mentality and the way Union operate as a football club. There is disappointment but not panic, where the club’s president has given his unequivocal backing to the coach Urs Fischer. As for the Union fans, their support of the team is unconditional.

“Unconditional is the perfect word,” Aaronson says. “It’s unbelievable. You try to say as a footballer sometimes that you’re not focused on outside things, like the fans or stuff like that, but when they’re behind you all the time, that is for sure a positive.”

As the interview draws to a close, Aaronson thinks about the days and weeks ahead, the exciting fixtures on the horizon — Napoli, Braga and Real Madrid in the Champions League — and the opportunities to change the narrative rather than dwell on the past.

“There’s not a lot of doom and gloom,” Aaronson adds. “You have so much time in the season left, so it’s not the end of the world. We have so many amazing games coming up.

“For me, I know that I’m going to continue to work hard day in and day out to get into the team, into a rhythm and, like I said, the flow.

“So I’m really happy to be here.”

(Top photo: Stuart James/The Athletic)