The battle for first place in the Eastern Conference between the Philadelphia Union and Atlanta United FC is finally here, with kickoff set for 7:30 PM. Union Head Coach Jim Curtin will hope his group is up for the test without team captain Alejandro Bedoya – suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Who will step up tonight?
Flashback to March 7th. Philadelphia traveled to Atlanta to play in front of an anticipated crowd of over 60,000 people. The team situated themselves comfortably at the beautiful Atlanta Marriott before the early season test against one of MLS’ perennial elites. Prior to kickoff, Union Head Coach filed the official lineup sheet and scratched in Brenden Aaronson’s name for the first time. Aaronson would play alongside the veteran duo Ale Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin with Warren Creavalle accompanying as an extra defensive measure.
Aaronson would eventually tally his first career MLS goal that night and in doing so, solidified his spot in the lineup for the next eight matches.
But like many young players in sports, perhaps soccer more so than others, Aaronson struggled a bit to remain consistently effective on the pitch, eventually becoming the first sub off playing less than 55 minutes three times in a month. Recently, the 19-year old started every match in July but was subbed off before the 50-minute mark twice during that five-game stretch.
August was a different story. Aaronson was left out of the starting XI the first two matches this month and only received 10 minutes of action in a 2-0 loss at Chicago two weeks ago.
Last week was Aaronson’s shot to regain his form and show not only Curtin and his technical staff why he deserves the minutes, but also the fans as well. Some threw shade the youngster’s way for a dip in form but Aaronson kept on working his way back despite the noise.
“As a young player, you’re on and off because you’re going to have inconsistency at first,” said Aaronson during a mid-week phone call with Philly Sports Network. “I think it comes with time – being consistent. Waiting out the few games taught me a lot. You can’t really get down on yourself. You just have to keep pushing to get back into that lineup and that’s what I did and I was super proud of myself.”
Wise words from a soon to be 20-year old. But this process is nothing new to Aaronson, considering he’s been in the Union youth system for years now.
Curtin noticed as well.
“[Curtin] didn’t tell me straight up but I think I heard it in the post-game interview and he said throughout the week that he was proud that I was out for a bit and got back into the lineup and did as well as I did,” said Aaronson. “Because most people coming back from three or four games out would’ve been a little nervous, but I sort of took as if I’m back in the lineup and I have to show what I can do to stay in it again.”
Now, with team captain Bedoya out of consideration, Aaronson can provide that spark once more tonight against Atlanta.
The performance from Aaronson last week – one goal and an assist – goes to show that an injection of life into a lineup can provide large benefits. And why not continue with Aaronson tonight?
When asked about his mindset heading into the weekend, Aaronson mentioned that not much changes. “It’s the same thing going into the game,” said Aaronson. “I’m just going to try and play as best as I can and try to get on the score sheet and work my butt off like I normally do. And just try to have a good game again.”
Some of Aaronson’s improvement – maybe even more than is credited – comes from the surrounding veteran midfield group Philadelphia has acquired over the past years. One player in particular – new to the group this year – Jamiro Monteiro, has been a heavy influence on Aaronson.
“Jamiro’s been such a special player this year – especially for the younger players I think,” said Aaronson. “For me, I honestly try and take away as much as I can from him because he’s just so quick and so decisive on the ball. He knows what he wants to do when moving towards the goal. He’s been a special player for us and he’s helped us a lot. I think he has 10 assists this year and like four or five goals which is awesome for a midfielder. So yeah, I try to take a lot from him.”
There are parts of Monteiro’s game that are simply world-class and comparatively, throughout MLS, he belongs in the elite group of players. Aaronson noticed his quickness as one of Monteiro’s greatest attributes.
“You can’t touch him as a defender when you’re in the midfield,” said Aaronson. “His quickness and the way that he shifts his body on the ball is what I notice. In the possession games we play, I don’t think he ever gives the ball up and he’s just impossible to touch. Just impossible.”
But whether or not Aaronson, Monteiro, and even Marco Fabian are sent out together tonight to start remains up in the air. Curtin spoke at length about the importance of having Ilsinho on the pitch. If he decides Ilsinho is worthy of another start, Aaronson may be the odd one out.
How exactly Philadelphia will line-up tonight remains up in the air. They flexed their tactical versatility muscles last week with the 4-2-3-1 formation from the opening whistle. Will Curtin return to that style once more tonight? Or will the diamond 4-4-2 return? Or will both be used, with tactical changes coming on the fly throughout the match?
Regardless of formation, Curtin mentioned the team doesn’t plan on sitting back and absorbing Atlanta’s attack. “We want to be proactive,” said Curtin. “If you sit back and absorb, eventually [Atlanta] is going to break you down. Practice has been ramped up. The intensity has a playoff feel, it feels like a playoff week.”
Curtin’s players are ready for the challenge too. “The stakes are higher,” said Curtin. “Most importantly the players are confident right now and they want to test themselves against a top team. as pro athletes, you want to test yourselves against the best.”
Philadelphia welcomes the best in the Eastern Conference tonight in Chester. Kickoff is set for 7:30 PM on PHL17.
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Graduate of Pennsylvania State University ’16. Interests include sports and history. Follow on twitter for Philly sports news – @MMcClain_PSN
Philadelphia Union writer.