SALZBURG, Austria -- Brenden and Paxten Aaronson are on FaceTime, debating who is better at pingpong. Janell and Rusty, their parents, are listening in, smiling at the familiarity of it all. After all, 6,000 miles does nothing to dilute the fraternal rivalry between two of America's most gifted young footballers.
Brenden, 21, is home for the day after finishing his double training session at FC Salzburg. Paxten, 18, is just starting his routine at the Philadelphia Union. Rusty, Janell and daughter Jaden, 15, are sitting in Brenden's flat in Anif, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria. They've heard these back-and-forths since the boys were young.
- Paxten: Who won at pingpong the last time, me?
- Brenden: No. You didn't. No chance. I won, I kicked your butt.
- Paxten: Dad, dad remember ...
- Brenden: No, it was Christmas Eve ...
- Paxten: He was beating me and then I finally got the rhythm back and I started whooping his ass.
- Brenden: OK, you got your rhythm back but then I crushed you like 10 times at night and you threw your paddle -- you kept slamming your paddle!
- Paxten: I ended up winning the series three to two because I won the last game!
- Brenden: That was after I beat you five times.
At this point, Janell interjects: "OK, we could go on and on for hours..."
"If it's cornhole, I'd win as I'm a sharpshooter," Paxten says. "Yeah, but I'd beat you at golf," Brenden returns. Janell can only roll her eyes and laugh.
It's good-natured banter between the brothers, who have grown up to be best friends. The one sport they do not squabble about, really, is soccer. When Rusty asks who would be the team's first-choice No.10 if they were in the same squad, there's a slightly awkward to-and-fro, resulting in detente. Time zones mean Brenden checks his phone first thing to see how Paxten has done, while Paxten catches up with Salzburg games after training. The two offer advice to one another.
It has always been like this -- the two growing up three years apart, but on the same trajectory, starting their pro careers with Major League Soccer's Philadelphia Union, hitting their growth spurts late and generally causing all sorts of mischief on the field. They both scored in their first MLS starts and are part of this nascent golden generation of U.S. men's national team talent. Brenden is in the mix to go to Qatar 2022, while Paxten could yet gate-crash the tournament depending on form and injuries. Brenden already has two league titles to his name at FC Salzburg from his two years in the Austrian Bundesliga, while Paxten will surely one day follow his brother to Europe, with several clubs already interested.
In short, they're special players with rare talent -- arguably the best brothers to break through in U.S. men's soccer history. But you wouldn't know it from talking to them: they're just polite, young chaps who happen to be incredibly gifted. They talk quickly and run even faster, but they walk slowly. Everything football throws at them is taken in their stride.
That's the way they have been raised and how they live their lives: in the end, they're two brothers from Medford, New Jersey, lighting up U.S. soccer in their own way.
The Aaronsons suggest we meet by the "big yellow house" on Getreidegasse. It's where Salzburg's most famous son, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, grew up. Brenden walks up, introduces himself and his family before we wander off, free to be tourists for the afternoon.
Brenden is well-known in football circles and while he gets spotted when he's back in the USA -- Janell later recalls the shock at seeing her boy get asked for an autograph in Sarasota, Florida -- he lives anonymously in Austria. The only people who recognise him are a couple of his teammates, who are stretching their legs on a walk the day after their 2-1 win away at Austria Wien.
When the Aaronsons heard of FC Salzburg's interest in Brenden, their knowledge of the area was predominantly instructed by "The Sound of Music," which was filmed in and around the city. Their first visit was when he arrived as a €6m signing in January 2021 amid another wave of the coronavirus pandemic. His parents travelled with him; when the Aaronson trio arrived in Salzburg, they doubled the number of people staying in their hotel near the banks of the Salzach river. While his mom "dealt with IKEA," as Brenden puts it, he spent time at the club getting to know his new teammates and in a time of lockdown, that was his only social interaction.
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Brenden found it hard adjusting at first. He'd only ever lived with his parents in Medford, a small town in New Jersey with a population of 23,000. That's where he and his siblings -- Paxten, Jaden, all of them gifted athletes -- live.
Soccer has always run in the family's blood. Rusty played in college at Monmouth and coaches a successful high-level youth club, Real Jersey in New Jersey. The kids tried every sport, but Brenden fell for soccer and Paxten later followed suit. "The boys were having fun," Rusty says. "I see the pressure some fathers put on their boys -- I mean we were there at Mozart's house, reading about the pressure his father put on him. That's one way to go, but it's not our way, or my way. I remember the first time I played football with both of my boys in the backyard ... it was amazing. I thought, 'I'm making a comeback!'"
"It was a big commitment from all of us," Janell says. "We used to have to drive three hours a day [from Medford] to take them to the academy [Philadelphia Union's YSC]. And then you realise what they sacrificed too: they missed dances, going out with their friends. Our vacations would be soccer trips."
Brenden and Paxten were initially small for their age. Rusty would watch on from the sidelines as his boys had to "fight, kick and scratch" to hold their own in matches, dwarfed by other players at their age level. Brenden says that time was "hard" as he was "getting killed and bodied the whole time."
Rusty remembers watching on during those brutal training sessions. "It did bother me when I saw Brenden beat a kid and then, as they were bigger, they'd grab him and throw him on the ground," Rusty says. "The other coaches would chuckle. But no matter how beaten they were, and they were always beaten down a bunch of times with their size, they kept on going."
"We said to them, 'There's always going to be someone better than you, so the whole point is, every single day you have to do your best,'" Janell says. "You have to be happy. I think one advantage they had when young was that as they weren't the strongest, they had to be smart with their soccer IQ and their feet."
When Brenden was close to his 16th birthday, he hit a growth spurt. "I was like a big giraffe on ice: I couldn't get my feet right, but I stuck at it," Brenden says.
Paxten's physical and footballing trajectory was similar. Both coped with rejection as the age-grade U.S. sides initially overlooked them due to their size. "I felt at a young age I was never truly under the spotlight," Brenden says. "I had to grow, and I remember not getting called into the youth national camps. I remember my first U14 camp, I cried, you know, because it was tough missing out. I didn't go to the U20 World Cup either, but my mum and dad always said, 'Focus on working hard and doing the stuff behind the scenes.'"
The setbacks helped them grow, while their parents also adapted as they got accustomed to this new world.
"I was reading a note today on my phone from Chris Brewer, one of our favourite coaches for Brenden from the Academy," Rusty says. "He told me, back when Brenden was 13 years old, that he'd be a pro. But we were sitting there at the end-of-season parents' evening, and he told me: 'Who cares at all about the national team at 15? He shouldn't care, you shouldn't care. It probably stings a little bit, but he will be on the national team by the time he's 21.'"
The original plan was for Brenden to go to college at Indiana, but he continued his education at Philadelphia's YSC, playing for their feeder club Bethlehem Steel in the USL Championship (U.S. soccer's second tier) from 2017 to 2018 before then graduating into the Union first team while finishing high school. "It was different back then to how it is now," Janell says. "Apart from people like Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie, most kids would go to College and get drafted from there. There weren't many home-grown players at Philadelphia then -- it's evolved very quickly to where it is now."
The family was always adjusting, like when agents came knocking. "When it first happens and these boys are in their teens, they have no real idea of what's going on," Janell says. "You have to manage your children so you guide them as best you can, without interfering." The first agent they chose didn't work out, so Rusty took temporary stewardship over Brenden. But he soon found it too much for him, so they went with another agency.
Brenden had strong guidance throughout -- his grandfather Jan has been a voracious reader on football, his father has strong business acumen and a love of the sport, while his mother has looked after his finances -- but when it comes to club decisions, and the final decisions on contracts or transfers, it's their son's call. When Salzburg came in with a bid for Brenden, he had other offers on the table -- including one from the Premier League, and another from Belgium -- and while those were more lucrative, the Aaronsons looked at the long game.
"We have always said, with everything, that we'd rather you take a baby step than go from one extreme to another," Janell says. "We've seen so many players get left in the dust -- a laundry list of them."
The training ground at FC Salzburg is empty, so Brenden gives a quick tour of the club's state-of-the-art facilities. There's a wall of football boots just by the door that leads you to the first-team practice pitch. The biggest cluster of piled shoes lies next to the cubbyhole numbered 11: Brenden loves boots and is always trying out new models. "They let me out [watch training] there," Rusty says. "He genuinely loves his teammates. They're young guys, it's competitive as hell, but he gets along with them. The coaches too are young."
It has been the perfect place for Brenden to learn, not least because the club has an impressive track record of developing young players and moving them on, the whole process funding future cycles of development. In the Premier League alone, their notable alumni include Sadio Mane, Naby Keita, Joel Matip, Takumi Minamino (all Liverpool) Hwang Hee-chan (Wolves), Enock Mwepu (Brighton) and Patson Daka (Leicester City). In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich duo Marcel Sabitzer and Dayot Upamecano played for Salzburg, as did RB Leipzig duo Dominik Szoboszlai and Amadou Haidara, plus Stefan Lainer (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Xaver Schlager (Wolfsburg). Then there was Erling Haaland, who went from FC Salzburg to Borussia Dortmund in January 2020 and just signed for Manchester City.
Some of those names adorn the Wall of Fame at the club's ground, the Red Bull Arena. Each plaque on the West Stand highlights their achievements, while also listing the trophies the club had won that season. It's a long list. In late April they won their ninth straight Austria Bundesliga title and followed it up with the OFB-Cup -- their eighth in nine years.
"It's crazy to see the talent they've had and how well that talent is now doing in other places," Brenden says. "This is a wonderful club, and it prepares you well for the future: you get games, and Champions League experience."
Back in Brenden's apartment, just behind a small desk where he has his multiscreen PlayStation set up, is a double-decker clothes hanger. His medals hang off the end, along with some of his Champions League passes. He has some of the shirts he has swapped in his young career, too -- some are those of USMNT teammates he has played against in club matches, but pride of place is the Thomas Muller jersey he swapped after Salzburg's 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League. After going toe-to-toe with the Bundesliga giants in Austria, they fell 7-1 in the return leg.
"That match was something I had to experience," Brenden says. "It was so tough, but in years to come I'll look back at that game and say it was a learning experience. I had to go through it."
Even in his young career, he looks back on a series of these matches as formative moments. His recollections revolve around what he learned -- like his MLS debut away at Atlanta, or the first time he played in the Austrian Bundesliga, or in the Champions League. His parents' recollections are different and vary from mother to father.
"I haven't gotten used to it, and it doesn't get easier," Rusty says. "I like to go in my own little space. I don't watch it with a bunch of people. And yeah, there's a bit of anxiety. Yeah, you know, four or five minutes goes by and the kid hasn't touched the ball. You're like, 'Come on, let's go. Let's go. Let's go!'"
Janell's experiences of watching their boys is different again.
"It definitely gets easier. Like I would say the very first time when Brendan made his debut for the Union, I was a mess the entire day. They were playing at Atlanta -- It's like one of the biggest stadiums at the time. You know what I mean? 70,000 fans, and they're just like, basically throwing them to the wolves. The whole entire day I was just like, 'Oh, God, I hope the kid doesn't like, just play horrible.' You know what I mean? And then he scored."
Rusty was away when Brenden made that debut. "The girls' team I coach had a tournament in New England. We were driving home. The girls were watching the game on a phone. And all of a sudden, they screamed, 'Oh my god, he scored.' And I almost drove off the freakin' road. I thought they were messing with me. Then Janell texted me and I'm like, 'Holy s---.'"
Paxten remembers when Brenden played Brondby in the Champions League qualifier this season. "I was sick, laying in bed," Paxten says. "I was exhausted and woke up to hear dad screaming. I thought someone had died, but it was Brenden scoring."
After each match the brothers play, they check in with each other. The time zones mean it's tricky for them to watch them live: when Brenden wakes up, he checks how many touches Paxten had, while Paxten normally watches back the highlights, or a recap if it's Champions League, after he has finished training. "I remember some of the best advice I've had was from Brenden," Paxten says. "He told me, 'Just be patient and even when things aren't going your way, your quality will always come through.' I remember last season I wasn't getting rostered [by Philadelphia] at all, and he told me to remain calm and eventually they'd see my quality. And I started to get more opportunities."
"He checks up on me too, you know," says Brenden. "Maybe after a bad game, I'll get a message saying, 'Keep your head up and good things will come your way if you work hard.'"
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There are remarkable similarities between the two and their career trajectories, even down to both scoring on their first MLS starts. "Watching them play, like if you see Paxten in his Union gear, moving a certain way ..." Rusty says. "As the father who's watched them play soccer since they walked, I have to do a double take: there's the same movement, how they hold their hands and hair.
"If something doesn't go well, Brenden will let you know, but Paxten is very quiet," Rusty adds. "We used to get the car back from training when they were little. They're talking away in the back of the car, but sometimes Paxten would be quiet and I'd think 'Holy s---, I've forgotten Paxten!' But he keeps himself to himself, while Brenden wears it on his sleeve."
Rusty shows me a video of the two playing football at home. It's one-on-one: their movement is similar, and the clip finishes with Paxten doing a Ronaldinho-esque "Elastico" past Brenden to score. He runs off celebrating, while Brenden is frustrated with himself. It might be brother vs. brother, but the similarities in stature, stance and running style are remarkable.
"I think he likes the way I play," Brenden says. "And I love the way he plays. He's more of a 10 than I am: he's a very good finisher and can play the final ball really well. I've shown that I am more of a runner, getting the ball a bit deeper. We're both a little different."
When Paxten signed for the Union, they asked him if he'd like Brenden's old No. 22 shirt in Philadelphia, or even the 11 like his brother at RB Salzburg. Paxten opted for 30. "We're really invested in watching each other and helping each other as best we can learn from each other, but he wants to carve his own path at the same time," Brenden says.
At this point Rusty interjects, asking who would start at No. 10 if both were picked: he's poking the bear. Brenden takes the lead: "I'd play [the] eight, I don't care." Paxten waits a while and says: "It depends what formation we're playing." While this discussion is a little tentative, with neither brother willing to take the bait, they unite behind a shared wish to one day line up for the national side together. "Yeah, that's for sure the dream," Brenden says. "That'd be awesome."
The Aaronson family plans to travel to Qatar to watch Brenden play for the USMNT this winter -- if he makes the cut. Despite having featured in all their qualifiers, bar the final three that he missed through a knee injury, the family's mantra of never rushing ahead means they won't book travel yet -- not until he's on that plane and heading to the World Cup. "No one's spot is concrete," Brenden says. "You have to keep playing to a high level. And I want to be a big player at the World Cup, someone the country can rely on. I want to be consistent.
"I know there'll be a lot of noise once we get to Qatar, if I'm selected, but for me it's always been day by day. Don't focus on the outside stuff, accept praise, but don't take it in too much. And focus on me, getting better, and I'll be ready for the World Cup."
Some of the family's fondest memories of seeing Brenden play revolve around the USMNT like his debut against Costa Rica in February 2020, and then his goal against Canada in the World Cup qualifier in September 2021. "I lost my s---," Rusty remembers. "It was the perfect Brenden goal, too, because he pressed the ball. It was a huge game. And the way he scored, he pressed the ball, he drove it forward and then made a late run, and scored ... the place was jumping. Usually I'm like, 'Yeah, I've seen him do that before,' but in that moment I lost it."
As we get to the subject of the World Cup and his own development, Brenden has just finished watching clips of Luka Modric. He's one of Brenden's idols, as is Kevin de Bruyne. He has been practising De Bruyne's whipped crosses in training, along with refining his finishing. "I love expressing myself, I love learning," he says. The conversation moves on to the on-trend style of vertical, quick-moving football. "It's constant moving, I think I do fit that."
Central to his way of seeing the game is visualisation. Before every match, he sets his alarm for 15 minutes prior to kick-off. Then for a couple of moments, he'll visualise potential scenarios that he might encounter in the match ahead. It's a technique Jan mentioned to him: Brenden thinks his grandfather learned about it after reading an article on Wayne Rooney. "I try to build a bunch of moments in my mind," Brenden explains. "It could be anything as extreme as scoring 10 goals, but that feeling gets the butterflies going. It's not like you're looking at yourself through a bird's eye view, it's through your own eyes. It really gets you ready."
Brenden has dreams, just like Paxten: they want success, to win silverware and excel for their country. Brenden will one day play in the Premier League -- it doesn't get any more "normal" for his parents to see him linked with clubs, with Janell joking that she reads the rumours and immediately thinks, "What, my Brenden?!!" -- but above all that, they also want to make their parents and sister, Jaden, proud. Both say they have made it as professional footballers because of "their amazing support system."
"You see some talents are given everything when they're young ... of course we were talented, but we had setbacks like not being picked, or being too small and people saying we couldn't cover enough ground," Paxten says. "But we were persistent and it built character."
There could be another to come from the Aaronson family, too. Jaden, 15, is their biggest fan and a promising footballer of her own, playing as a winger or No. 10 for her high school. Rusty jokes Jaden has already scored more headers than the two boys. She has the potential to also go pro, but when asked if she'd like to emulate her older brothers and go full time, there's a shake of the head. She also wants to carve her own path.
The call between the two brothers is finishing up, and Paxten has to get back to training. Brenden's girlfriend, Milana, is trying to FaceTime him, too. The evening sky has masked the top of the mountain hanging over Brenden's apartment, and they want to get some dinner before watching the late Premier League kick-off. My final question is a simple one: who is better at FIFA? Paxten chimes in: "Me, obviously." But then comes the counter from Brenden: "Oh, I've been grinding, bro. You don't even know. Yeah, you won 11-1 the last time we played, but I've been grinding."