Wasn’t long ago that the Philadelphia Union were operating a bush league program.

The team didn’t have a training facility or practice fields, and had to pile the players into vans to drive to a public park in Wallingford just to get their daily sessions in. The owner didn’t have a lot of money, the team didn’t make any blockbuster signings, and they sailed through the first five years just sort of treading water while the excitement of finally having a local MLS team eventually waned and casuals tuned out.

During that time, they built an academy at YSC Sports up in King of Prussia, an ambitious effort that obviously was going to take some time to start producing young, homegrown talent. In the meantime, they’d continue to slog through average seasons before finally turning a corner and winning their first postseason game in 2019.

On the field that afternoon were two kids who came through the academy and found their way into the senior team’s starting lineup. One was Bear, Delaware native Mark McKenzie. The other was Medford teenager Brenden Aaronsen, who is reportedly heading to Austria after this season in what would be the Union’s first homegrown transfer outside of Major League Soccer:

It’s a symbolic moment for the Union, a watershed type of turning point for a team that asked fans to be patient until the academy began churning out talent. This transfer, when official, will mark the first time ever that the franchise was able to take a local kid, bring him into their system, put him in the starting lineup, and then transfer him to a bigger club in Europe (for a decent chunk of money, hopefully). Fingers crossed, many more local kids will follow Brenden’s path overseas. McKenzie is not far behind, and there are more homegrowns in the pipeline ready to replace them on the field.

The best thing about this move is that Austria is a PERFECT destination.

First, Salzburg has an American manager in Jesse Marsch, who played in MLS and coached in New York before moving overseas a few years ago. He’s had success in a short amount of time, winning the Austrian League and the Austrian domestic cup last season while challenging Liverpool admirably in a 4-3 road loss in UEFA Champions League play. Marsh will play a big role in helping a young American adjust to a new country and some language barriers.

Second, Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner ran the Salzburg academy from 2012 to 2018, so he’s connected to their system and implemented the same style of play in Philadelphia. Under Tanner, the Union have become a 4-4-2 pressing team which plays a transitional and defensively-stout type of game that blue-collar, hard-working Philadelphians should enjoy. Aaronson should find the adjustment comfortable because he currently plays the Salzburg system here at home.

Third, Salzburg is part of the Red Bull family of clubs, which also includes Leipzig in the German Bundesliga. The teams function as a streamlined and familiar unit, which means that if Brenden excels in Austria, there’s a natural path forward to a bigger club in a bigger league. It’s a defined path forward.

Truly, it’s a move that checks all the boxes, and now local soccer fans can look forward to seeing a former Union player on a good European team. There’s a natural rooting interest there, which has rarely been the case outside of perhaps Hershey native Christian Pulisic finding success with Chelsea in the English Premier League.

More than anything, it’s a classic Philadelphia success story. Here’s a kid who was born here, raised here, and taken into the nearby academy. He worked his way up, earned his playing time, excelled, and now he’s heading to Europe.

Not everybody loves soccer in this region, but even if you don’t care for the sport, I’d wager that you’ll cheer for a local kid who has a bright future ahead of him.

He’s one of us.