Each and every time Brenden Aaronson joins up with the U.S. men's national team, American soccer fans get a closer look at a brand new player.
Brand new doesn't mean entirely different, at least in this scenario. Rather, whenever Aaronson shows up to USMNT camp, he looks like a better version of himself.
With Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna out of action due to injury, it was Aaronson who stepped up against Jamaica on Thursday, assisting on the second goal of a 2-0 win after starring for the U.S. early on. For most teams, the absence of players like Pulisic and Reyna would be a death sentence, but Aaronson has proven more than capable of matching his superstar teammates.
Thursday was just the latest big moment for the Red Bull Salzburg star, who has made a habit of giving the U.S. exactly what they need in the attacking third.
As the U.S. marches through 2021 and the early moments of World Cup qualifying, Aaronson keeps getting better and better. He looks to be a player that's more confident, more direct and more decisive.
In short, we're watching Aaronson make the leap from newcomer to USMNT regular to, it could be easily argued, the team's most important attacking player in 2021.
"I'm not gonna lie: I do get nervous," Aaronson admitted after the win over Jamaica. "I mean it's normal, and it's part of how young players kind of step up to it.
"I was nervous but I know my quality and I'm confident in it and I think everybody else was too. Once you connect that first pass and go from there and then it's upward from that."
If Aaronson is still battling nerves with the national team, it's been hard to see, especially over the last month or so.
The Red Bull Salzburg star was decisive in the game against Canada, scoring a go-ahead goal only to see the U.S. squander the lead moments later. He scored another against Honduras, helping put the eventual 4-1 win out of reach, before assisting Ricardo Pepi on the second of his two goals in the Jamaica win.
Pepi has gotten many of the headlines over the last month, and rightfully so. What Pepi is doing is incredible, especially considering that the No.9 position is one of need.
But what Aaronson has been doing has been equally as impressive as he's shined in a spot that definitely isn't a position of need for the U.S. at this point.
Played largely out wide, Aaronson will compete with the likes of Pulisic, Reyna, Paul Arriola and Tim Weah for minutes in the months and years to come and, on form alone, Aaronson is the standout. While the others have battled injuries, Aaronson has kept chugging along, putting up big numbers along the way.
Aaronson is level with Sebastian Lletget as the USMNT's leading scorer in 2021, despite having played only 538 total minutes. And, of his four goals, two have come in crucial moments in World Cup qualifying, with Aaronson netting against both Canada and Honduras.
And it's not just the stats, but the style. So far this year, the USMNT have been at their best with Aaronson on the field.
"He's methodical about the way he's gone about it," said USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter. "It's about steady constant improvement and using every game, every training session to get better.
"I think he's a great example for the rest of the group of just this slow and steady improvement. It really, really helps get you places and he's done a great job with the team. His work-rate, his energy, his final product are all really strong."
Going forward, Berhalter will have plenty of selection headaches when it comes to the wing position. But those will be the good types of headaches.
In the coming months, Berhalter will have to juggle what to do with his wealth of talent out wide, which is a good problem to have in these three-game windows. But, if the U.S. were to start the World Cup with a full-strength team right now, it would be very hard to keep Aaronson out.
He's been better than Pulisic as, in the Chelsea star's limited minutes, he's developed a bad habit of trying to do too much. In CONCACAF, doing too much often leads to a few shin kicks for good measure as Pulisic has often been punished for trying to dribble more than he needs to.
And Aaronson has also proven to be effective defensively, putting in the effort to press when called upon. He's had the energy of Arriola and the creativity of Reyna or Pulisic, all rolled into one.
But those decisions are for another day as the young USMNT attack continues to sort itself out.
“When you think about Paul and Brenden, I would hate to play against those guys,” Berhalter said after the win on Thursday night. “They’re relentless. They don’t stop. It’s annoying, even as the coach watching them I’m like, ‘Oh my god, you guys aren’t stopping right here. You keep going.’ And they harass those defenders the whole time. It was really an incredible performance.”
It remains to be seen what winger combo Berhalter will go with against Panama on Sunday. He took Aaronson off after just 68 minutes on Thursday, citing his heavy workload on the club level. With Weah, Arriola and Matthew Hoppe all available, Berhalter could give Aaronson a well-earned rest.
But, if he doesn't, Aaronson will look to seize another chance to shine for the USMNT, another chance to put his nerves to the side and take yet another step forward.
"I don't even think we think of ourselves as young guys anymore," Aaronson says. "We're put in a situation where the whole country is looking at us and we need to perform. Everybody takes on this challenge
"If you look at it, Pepi goes out there and does his thing tonight, and me Sergino [Dest] and Yunus [Musah], Yunus isn't even nervous before the game.
"We're all smiling. We're just having a good time and then we just go out on the field, have a great time and just show our country what we can do."