LEEDS, England – The stadium was already half empty and the steadfast few left on Elland Road were in a ruthless mood. Leeds United had just been beaten again, this time by Fulham. A fourth defeat in a row, a seventh game without a win and the specter of the Premier League relegation zone began to exert a dreaded, unavoidable gravitational pull.
As the team made a perfunctory tour of the pitch to thank the fans for their patience, they were greeted – mostly – with silence. When Jesse Marsch, the team’s American coach, followed a few seconds later, even that layer of cordiality disappeared. He was taunted by the crowd during the match. Now he was booed.
At that point, Brenden Aaronson would have been forgiven for deciding to sneak into the locker room. Few would have noticed that Aaronson, a 22-year-old American, was not part of the gloomy procession of players.
However, Aaronson didn’t take the easy way out. Instead, he walked slowly, deliberately in Marsch’s wake across the field. He held up his hands in front of all four stands, palms open, as if begging forgiveness. And as he did, the mood changed. By the time Aaronson left the field, his self-imposed ordeal over, the silence—if not all the gloom—was gone. Even in defeat, Aaronson had rallied the fans.
Whether by accident or on purpose, Leeds United have spent much of the past three years as English football’s great thought experiment, a laboratory for challenging entrenched assumptions.
The first hypothesis tested was whether the outré methods of Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa, the sport’s most impudent ideologue, could work in the Premier League. The assumption had long been that no, they couldn’t. Leeds gave Bielsa a chance to refute it.
He led the team to a ninth-place finish in his first season after winning promotion from the Championship and then plunged it into danger of relegation, but the admiration he earned from a fan base leaning towards cynicism was enough to topple the establishment to throw. logic: At least one other English club is now toying with the idea of hiring Bielsa.
Leeds’ next challenge was even more charged, if anything. Leeds replaced Bielsa in February with Marsch, who became only the second American coach to take charge of a Premier League team. A few months later he was joined not only by Aaronson – a resident of Medford, NJ – but also by Tyler Adams, acquired from RB Leipzig but raised in upstate New York. Fair or not, how Leeds fared would be presented as a referendum on English football’s attitude towards Americans.
The results have been mixed so far. Adams has been a steady, subtle success: a diligent, sharp-witted defensive midfielder, beloved enough to have a huge portrait of him hung from the imposing, cantilevered roof of Elland Road’s Jack Charlton Stand. “I didn’t know it was that big,” said Adams after seeing it for the first time. “It’s pretty cool.”
The verdict on Marsch is more controversial. He earned some credit for leading the team out of relegation last season, and an early season win against Chelsea in August. and a recurring theme emerged in the criticism of him: Leeds executives, and Marsch himself, noted that his nationality always seemed much more relevant after defeats than in the glow of victory.
There has been no such ambivalence about Aaronson. He may have been a relative unknown when he arrived at the start of the summer from Marsch’s former team Red Bull Salzburg as a vaguely disappointing replacement for Raphinha, the Brazilian wing who was then on his way to Barcelona.
Aaronson may not have a regular starting role on coach Gregg Berhalter’s team in the United States at the World Cup. In just three months, however, he has established himself as the great American success story of this Premier League season – even ahead of Christian Pulisic, now one of the substitutes at Chelsea – and erases every last bit of skepticism that accompanied his arrival. .
Unlike Marsch, Aaronson’s Americanness doesn’t seem to be a problem. Within a few weeks of arriving at the club, he had already earned a song in his honor, a reworked version of Estelle’s “American Boy.” “The Square Ball”, a tongue-in-cheek and sometimes caustic Leeds fanzine and podcast, tends to refer to him – affectionately – as the “Yank Badger”.
The nickname refers to the source of its popularity. Under first Bielsa and now Marsch, Leeds have become accustomed to a style of play that borders on physically exhausting. Both coaches demand their players run. The fans are used to it too. And even in a team characterized by his (sometimes inefficient) diligence and (sometimes counterproductive) intensity, Aaronson’s work ethic, his endless rushing and prowling, stand out.
For example, in a win over Liverpool in October that most likely saved his manager’s job, Leeds not only ran more than any team in a Premier League game this season, but Aaronson also ran more than anyone else. He logged 8.2 miles, more than any player has run in a league game this year.
“Brenden Aaronson likes grass,” Daniel Chapman wrote in “The Square Ball” earlier this season. “Green grass. Yellow grass. Part artificial grass. All the grass, he loves all the grass, likes to run in it, roll in it, be on it, dance on it, metaphorically eat it up with his running feet and maybe literally with his hungry mouth.
Marsch sees that characterization, while not incorrect, as a bit reductive. “He has more quality than people think,” said the coach. “He’s a good finisher, he’s very clever at putting together passes in tight spaces. It’s so much about his ability to make last plays and slow himself down a bit in the last third.
But even Marsch couldn’t resist the temptation to make a horticultural analogy. “He’s like a weed,” Marsch, a former MLS coach with the Red Bulls, told MLSsoccer.com’s “Extratime” podcast earlier this season. “You can almost see it grow before your eyes.”
That’s what made him so quickly endeared to even the most die-hard, weathered Leeds fans: not just his effort, but his intent. It’s what has filled American fans with optimism about his contributions heading into Monday’s World Cup opener against Wales.
That day against Fulham, Aaronson had no reason to apologise. The defeat was certainly not his fault. He had been Leeds’ best and most effective player. Still, he made his way down the field, still moving even after the final whistle, still convinced he could have done more.
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