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Union Berlin leaning on US midfielder Brenden Aaronson for Champions League experience

BERLIN (AP) — Union Berlin is looking to a fresh-faced kid from Medford, New Jersey, for experience as the German club embarks on its first ever Champions League season.

United States midfielder Brenden Aaronson will be one of the few Union players to have played in European soccer’s most important club competition when the group stage starts in September.

The 22-year-old Aaronson, who joined Union on loan from relegated Leeds in the offseason, already has been asked by teammates about the competition.

“I told them how special it is,” said Aaronson, who helped Austrian team Salzburg qualify for the 2021-22 Champions League, where it surprised many by reaching the knockout stages — a feat Union is hoping to emulate.

“I’ll be willing to take that leadership role, and tell the guys not to worry that much because I was kind of in the same situation with Salzburg, kind of the underdogs,” Aaronson said this week. “That’s the kind of mentality we have to have going into the Champions League.”

Union has thrived as an underdog since it earned its first promotion to the Bundesliga in 2019. But even so, qualifying for the Champions League by finishing fourth in Germany was a surprise.

It has prompted a flurry of transfer activity at the club, which also signed Germany international Robin Gosens in a club-record deal on Tuesday. Gosens played in the Champions League final for Inter Milan last season.

Aaronson, a member of last year’s U.S. World Cup team who has 32 international appearances, said playing in the Champions League was “a bonus” and that he had been looking at the overall picture when he joined Union.

“I felt like it was a great place to come, and it would get the best out of me as a footballer,” he said.

Aaronson played for the Philadelphia Union’s second-tier Bethlehem Steel at age 16 in 2017, made his Major League Soccer debut two years later, and transferred to Salzburg in 2021. He helped Salzburg win an Austrian league and reach the Champions League — scoring seven goals in 42 appearances over 1 1/2 seasons — but experienced opposite emotions with Leeds, which was relegated from the Premier League last season. With the English team, he played alongside fellow Americans Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie.

“Everybody knows it was a tough year,” Aaronson said. He relished being able to disconnect, spend time with his family, play golf and go to the beach. “It was something I really needed.”

Aaronson has already shown in preseason what he can offer Union in a playmaking role, taking the ball forward quickly and bringing teammates along, setting up goal opportunities for an attacking lineup that will be further boosted by former Germany forward Kevin Volland after his arrival from Monaco on Thursday.

“I feel like we’re going to have a really good season just based on the players we’re bringing in, the players that we have,” Aaronson said. “You need depth to play in these leagues. I mean, Champions League, you’ve DFB Cup (German Cup) and Bundesliga, and you want to make late runs in everything, so you need the team to do it. That’s really encouraging to see how aggressive the club is.”

Union sporting director Oliver Ruhnert has suggested Aaronson needs to work on his strength to cope with the Bundesliga’s physicality, but this is nothing new for a late bloomer who grew up playing against much bigger guys.

“It might not look like it from the outside, but I work a lot at the gym,” Aaronson said with a laugh. “I’ve already been in there a bunch already and I’m trying. The number one thing is I always try to get stronger.”

Aaronson could face his younger brother Paxten Aaronson when Union plays Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. They used to spar together under the watchful eye of their father, Rusty.

”I’m definitely looking forward to that date,” Aaronson said of Frankfurt’s visit in early November. “My family is, too. I don’t know how many tickets I’m going to have to ask for. I’m not even trying to think about that for the moment.”

Aaronson will find out on Aug. 31 which teams Union will face in the Champions League group stage.

“I’m going to try to win,” he said. “So, I think that whatever we get, I hope it’s the easiest games.”

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