Leeds desperately pushed to get the deal sorted for Red Bull Salzburg and rising U.S. international Brenden Aaronson. The price kept climbing as bids were rejected. But the head coach and front office continued to press for their priority target.
This was under Marcelo Bielsa in January of 2022, with the midfielder arriving six months later, under a different head coach — Jesse Marsch — with many assuming the American was entirely behind the move for his compatriot.
Despite big expectations for Leeds United States of America, Marsch would be the first of three head coaches Leeds would have over a dire 2022-23 season.
Just a year later and Aaronson is gone, on loan to Bundesliga (and Champions League) club Union Berlin following Leeds’ relegation from the Premier League. By any estimation, his first season had not gone quite according to plan. His £25million price tag (then $31m) was at odds with his impact — one goal and three assists in the Premier League — underwhelming fans who hoped to see more end product from a near-club-record signing.
Did Leeds fail him, or did he fail them? Will he prove at Union that he has so much more to offer, that his perceived strengths are genuine? Or, after coming to Leeds from Salzburg, has he underlined a comment made by former United chairman Andrea Radrizzani that “to take coaches or players that come from the Austrian league and expect them to perform in the Premier League — with all respect — the gap is too big”?
Marsch kept faith with Aaronson while at Leeds (Photo: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Leeds sporting director Victor Orta and Bielsa led the recruitment and made Aaronson a priority target for the January 2022 transfer window, but Salzburg wouldn’t budge. They held firm to their policy to not sell mid-season with a round of 16 Champions League tie with Bayern Munich looming in February.
Yet, a deal of £25million was essentially set before Marsch took control, pending Leeds’ safety from relegation. Aaronson was identified not because of his nationality or familiarity with Marsch, but his fit within Bielsa’s system and stellar performances in the Champions League group stage with Salzburg — particularly his underlying ground-covering and pressing metrics.
Bielsa left the club in February and Marsch took over, tasked with keeping Leeds in the Premier League. Marsch succeeded — barely — on the final day of the 2021-22 season. Leeds’ brush with the drop saw two relegation release clauses negotiated into Aaronson’s deal: one to leave permanently for a set fee; another to leave on a free loan provided a top division club covered the wages.
Those clauses were activated once Leeds were relegated after the 2022-23 season. And so Aaronson will spend the season at Union, who are covering his salary but have no new purchase option. The 22-year-old’s release clause is only active if Leeds remain in the Championship.
Leeds are revamping their squad as they look to challenge for promotion. In the interviews that led the club to appoint a new manager this summer, Aaronson’s name was briefly mentioned in conversation by one candidate, who spent time explaining how the midfielder could be central to a successful tactical plan in the Championship.
Yet the USMNT international signalled his intention to head for new pastures, ready for a change after a difficult season. The only question was whether he might be back.
Aaronson appeared in four World Cup 2022 matches – but didn’t start any (Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)
What started as a huge American influence with Aaronson, Marsch and Tyler Adams — then, briefly, Weston McKennie — flamed out with relegation and vitriol from Leeds fans towards all but Adams, with USMNT’s World Cup captain the only one remaining as Leeds prepare for life in the Championship and another push for promotion. And even for Adams, there is no guarantee he will stay.
Aaronson started well for Leeds and appeared in 36 of Leeds’ 38 Premier League games. The attacker is elite at covering ground, pressing and duels rather than pure chance creation or finishing.
Settling into a new country and club is always a challenge, but Aaronson did OK. He’s thankful for the club and is bitterly disappointed they were unsuccessful in their battle against relegation. Though his price tag may have impacted fans’ expectations, the high pressure and desire to succeed weren’t internally amplified by it.
Aaronson went to the World Cup and though he appeared in all four of the USMNT’s games, he didn’t start any and was disappointed not to have had a bigger role. After the World Cup, Leeds lost 14 of their final 24 Premier League games, including seven of their last nine.
Marsch was fired in February, replaced by Javi Garcia, who was then fired in May for Sam Allardyce; a desperate ploy to avoid the seeming inevitability of relegation. Their fate was seemingly inevitable and Allardyce departed the club after four games in charge.
This summer, Leeds appointed Daniel Farke as manager. There has been a mass exodus from the squad, not uncommon after relegation. Robin Koch, Rasmus Kristensen, Rodrigo, Marc Roca and Diego Llorente are first-teamers who have already left.
Leeds wanted to keep Aaronson in their upcoming promotion push and hoped to convince him to stay, but the feeling was Berlin and the Champions League were a better fit than the Championship. With the release clause, it was ultimately the player’s decision.
A loan to Union may suit all parties.
The German club made it clear in their pursuit that Aaronson would be a key addition and will have a pivotal role; it was enough to win the race ahead of Fulham and other clubs looking to bring him on loan. Aaronson’s fit in the Bundesliga in general should be snug, even more so for a high-pressing Union team. The lure of the Champions League was strong as well — and he has made a promising start already, scoring in a friendly against Hungarian side Zalaegerszeg, and featuring in two other pre-season games for the German club.
It might be that the Bundesliga is less demanding or, perhaps, Union have a better knack for playing to his strengths. By the time Leeds were relegated, Aaronson had been through three different head coaches, all employing different systems. Marsch in particular stuck with him and resisted dropping the youngster when his form started to dip. He is regarded as a flop in Leeds but, at 22, has time and an opportunity in Berlin to get his European story back on track.
Had Leeds avoided relegation and Aaronson stayed, the club would have looked for him to work on his physical conditioning before the start of next season. Aaronson is extremely fit, with good levels of stamina, but the English top flight found him too easy to bully; a robust division in which his lack of strength was apparent.
Things change a lot over a year, so it’d be foolish to make any rulings on Aaronson’s future — but a return to Leeds isn’t to be discounted. Aaronson’s contract runs for another four seasons and if Leeds are promoted, there’s a world in which he’s back in the Premier League at Elland Road. We’ll see what the season in Germany does for his value and other suitors.
A temporary deal suited Leeds because, on the evidence of the player’s year in England, they might have found themselves selling him at a loss, weakening their financial fair play (FFP) position. Now Aaronson is off the wage bill, with Union covering his salary completely, and conceivably he might be back. But if not, a good year in the Bundesliga would help United sell at a better price.
With American ownership completing their takeover of the club this summer, perhaps this won’t be the end of Leeds United States of America. Who knows what the future holds, including Aaronson’s?
(Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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