Live from Leeds: Notes from Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams' Premier League debut
I spent 5 days in Leeds surrounding the Premier League debut of Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams at Leeds United on August 6th. These are my notes from the match, from the city, and from the people.
The evening before Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson made their Premier League debut with Leeds United, I walked around the West Yorkshire metropolis asking locals for their thoughts. I had a friend in tow- English, made of Midlands, living in Manchester- who, listening to me run through US National Team players footballing in England, asked me if this was revenge for colonialism. As I continued- relentless on this topic throughout the weekend- he’d joke, the takeover continues.
Friday night we befriended a set of couples split in loyalty between Chelsea and Leeds (a pair perfectly suited to my incessant questions regarding America’s alleged colonial revenge). The Blues fan assured me Thomas Tuchel was a mastermind tactician- the best there is, really- and that Christian Pulisic was an assured starter this year. I’m going to need answers from him as to why clearly neither is the case.
The Leeds fan was near incomprehensible of accent and enthusiastically pro-Marsch. Previewing the pivotal season before us, he echoed the sentiment of most Leeds fans that weekend: not only will Leeds United stay up this year, they’ll finish mid-table, easy. They’ll be no late season terror like there was last.
This fan in particular (swimming as he is in a sea of Marcelo Bielsa mourners, hopeful but skeptical of Marsch) credited Marsch entirely with keeping Leeds in the Premier League last season. Not only that (was he saying this for my benefit?) he felt it was the Americanness of Marsch that did the job.
He elaborated, spending incredible emotional emphasis on the last word of each assurance: “It’s the belief. It’s the mentality. It’s the camaraderie. It’s the huddles.”
The huddles?! Yes, the huddles, the very huddles Jesse Marsch was dragged for in British media as they tut-tutted over what this corny American was doing to their game. This isn’t basketball, mate. He went on at length about the huddles, which he pronounced hoodles: “The first time I seen the hoodle, I thought, ‘ang on, what’s this? Oh. Okay. Alright then.”
My new pro-hoodle friend professed as much admiration for the fictionalized American manager as he did the real one. He can’t wait to watch the new Ted Lasso season, just a brilliant series. Comically, though (without malice, perhaps due to time of night on a festive evening) he began speaking of Marsch and Lasso interchangeably, calling Jesse Marsch “Lasso” when speaking about Leeds: “‘e’s going to do it. ‘e will. Lasso will prove ‘em wrong. Leeds is staying up this season. They’ll see.”
“Marsch”, I interrupted, as he kept on about a Leeds manager named Lasso. “The real one’s called Jesse Marsch.”
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Leeds have something big to prove this season. And for several reasons, so do the Yanks in their ranks. Their mandate? This is the Premier League. Prove you belong.
Leeds was among the 22 teams in the inaugural Premier League season, but after relegation in 2004, they disappeared for 16 years. Leeds spent time as low as League One- the third tier of English football- before climbing their way into the Championship, and in 2020, they cracked back into the top flight under the guidance of their dearly beloved Marcelo Bielsa.
Halfway through last season, though, it looked like Leeds was going back down. Bielsa was out. Fans were distraught. An American was brought in. Skepticism, perhaps, was warranted.
What had this American manager achieved to warrant a Premier League appointment? How could they replace a legend like Bielsa with him? Seemingly everywhere, he was compared to Ted Lasso, the overly-smiley, shockingly-naive, and annoyingly-sincere fictionalized American (an endearing caricature of how some British people actually view Americans) who knew absolutely nothing about football before getting the job.
But after an emotional season and much ado about huddles, Marsch kept Leeds in the Premier League (by the skin of their teeth, in the final match).
A new season is now upon us. And overwhelmingly, the sentiment of Leeds fans is they’ll give Marsch a chance. For now. The opportunity is now firmly Marsch’s to botch or bungle.
Leeds enters their third straight Premier League season short of big names like Raphinha or Kalvin Phillips, both of whom left for bigger clubs in the off-season. Marsch replaced them with fresh faces, hard workers, and a pair of familiar Americans on whom he knew he could rely. Alongside Adams and Aaronson, Danish right back Rasmus Kristensen and Spanish midfielder Marc Roca made Premier League debuts against Wolves. In lieu of stars, what Leeds has is desire, cohesion, identity. What this will be- as Marsch emphasizes ad nauseam to press- is a team.
Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams come to Yorkshire with a few key things in common. That includes the American northeast, the US National Team, ties to Jesse Marsch, and a history with the Red Bull system. They press and they win the ball high. They force errors. They win second balls. And they run, a lot. The USA hustle boys and Jesse Marsch mentality men are here to meld themselves into Leeds, a team known to play precisely in that style. But will it be enough?
We’ll know by May. …or earlier, if things go awry at an accelerated pace.
Staying in the Premier League will be difficult work. Every match will be a fight. Missteps are nearly assured.
A victory at home to start the season is as solid a start as any could ask for, but the season expands outward over rough terrain. Marsch and his men still have everything left to prove in Yorkshire.
I’d been in Leeds since Thursday, and the population by Saturday morning had expanded about triple-fold. Where did all these people come from? Judging by the flow of kits- blue and yellow strewn across Briggate, expanding out- the culprit most responsible was Leeds United. They were joined by a healthy flow in town for Pride (happening Sunday, filling Leedsian pubs with football fans and drag queens in sometimes comical combination), as well as the ever reliable tumult of stag and hen parties descending on English cities every weekend. Why do the hen parties all carry blow up dolls? Tradition, I’m told.
We arrived to Elland Road a few hours early, parking beneath the looming brick facade of the John Charles West stand. To our right, rows of suburban homes wound up a small hill, overlooking the proud old ground. First built in 1897, Elland Road has maintained its character through several renovations. It’s a pretty old stadium nestled in a red brick neighborhood just south of Leeds. A lot of new stadiums to me look sterile, feel placeless. They mimic the design of whatever’s been done everywhere else on earth. But not Leeds. You could be no place but Leeds, no place but England at Elland Road.
We walked around to the opposite end, lingering beneath the decorated bronze statue of Billy Bremner. The largest collection of fans that early were those snaking out of the local fish and chips. Equipped with camera gear and eager questions, we began looking for people to chat. You can see some of what we gathered here.
The people we asked to chat were fairly open, and happy to talk, though not everyone wanted to. The closer we got to the start of things, a few people approached us, rather than the other way around. “Philadelphia?” I could hear somebody shout at my friend, manning the camera as I interviewed somebody else. “Isn’t that in America?!” That’s the one, my friend replied.
I turned to ask them questions (these are the ones featured near the end of the video, second to remind us soccer is an improper term). They were split in belief as to whether the trio of Yanks could do it. One believed they would, despite presumption. The other did not, because no Yank could.
We spoke to a healthy spread of fans as they milled around, weaving past the crowded carts of chips and burgers, past the The Old Peacock overflowing with fans, past the outdoor bar at the northeast corner where fans watched Fulham draw Liverpool. There were families, couples, friends, women, a large group of young boys walking arm in arm and singing, trailed by a trio of (I assume) their coaching staff. People met at the feet of Billy Bremner or Don Revie to pay tribute. One family placed a wreath at Bremner’s feet which read, in commemoration, “GRANDAD”. An enormous banner of Tyler Adams loomed just behind.
The fans we spoke to trended cautiously optimistic. They were excited for Aaronson in particular, when asked about new signings. They were interested to see what the others could do. We need a left back, nearly everyone echoed, as well as a striker or two.
And Marsch? They’re willing to give him a chance. He’s got a whole season now. He’s had the full offseason to prepare, to implement a system that’s truly his. We’ll see what he can do, went the refrain. Only at the margins of either end did people confess they thought he’d fail, or that there was no way he would.
Leeds fans don’t expect to be relegated (few teams do this early on). Only twice was I told it’s called football- unprovoked, mind you, I know better than to run round England shouting soccer- and only once did I imagine my interview was declined with some level of disdain, perhaps because of my accent.
Just under an hour out, with time winding down, I departed our pre-match project for the press box. On arrival I went first to see about a coffee, sheepishly needing the aid of an aid to figure out the machine. Hearing my accent, he commented, very matter of fact, you’re American. Confirmed. So I bet you want Aaronson to score, then. That would be nice, I laughed, before departing with my coffee into the open air to see about a rather important match.
(After the match, as I came back down to the media room, he was there beaming a smile at me from ear to ear).
I’ve stood in a lot of stadiums in my day. I’ve seen a lot of crowds go wild inside them. Elland Road on opening day of a Premier League requires a special tip of the hat. Atmosphere wise, for me? Top ten, easy. For Jesse Marsch? “Within thirty seconds [walking out from the tunnel] I want to play”.
And to round out the doe-eyed American praise for an English crowd on match day, the ever wholesome Jersey boy, Brenden Aaronson, in the post-match of his Premier League debut: “I can’t stop smiling, because this is such a wonderful place”.
The start of things erred fast. I felt, with some sense of foreboding, that this might not turn out to be wonderful.
In the sixth minute, Rasmus Kristensen (who otherwise had a strong debut) got beat badly by Pedro Neto, who then crossed to Hee-Chan Hwang waiting unmarked along the right side of the box. As Neto crossed to Hwang, Robin Koch was the only defender in the box and Wolves players were fast descending. Tyler Adams came blasting back, covering for a center back and left back still further up field. Adams was first to arrive but outnumbered, occupying the space between the assist-man and scorer, adding pressure but stopping neither. Hwang received the ball with a tidy little header to the feet of Daniel Podence, and Podence put Wolves up 1 with a scissor kick that bounced the ball from crossbar to grass and into the net.
Despite the setback, Leeds rallied and looked like the more dominant team the remainder of the half. Their pressure was relentless and suffocating, forcing errors and creating opportunities on the counter. There were a few quality chances (including a nice shot from Aaronson at the top of the box, following a pass from Tyler Adams- oh, what could have been!) before Leeds leveled the score in the 24th minute.
Wolves’ left back Rayan Ait Nouri stopped the Leeds attack intercepting a pass, only to have Aaronson win the ball back from pressure. Aaronson poked the ball out for Jack Harrison to collect, finding its way to Rodrigo. Rodrigo made space and sent the ball right through the grasp of the keeper at the nearside post.
Just when I thought Elland Road couldn’t get louder, it reached new decibels. Rodrigo ran straight toward a wild scene of fans who looked ready to burst out of the stands, pounding his chest in celebration. Exhales all around.
Before and after the equalizer Wolves attempted to slow and control the game with a montage of blatant diving. Jesse Marsch and his home crowd were outraged in lockstep. The furor flamed higher in the 15th minute when Ramus Kristensen was taken out by Wolves goalkeeper Jose Sa, whose status as keeper apparently protects him from being held accountable for missing the ball and taking out Kristensen’s head instead. The crowd erupted in minutes-long demands for VAR, sung to the lyrics of: “where the f***, WHERE THE F***, where the f*** is VAR?!”
Jesse Marsch is no sideline wallflower. As calls were missed or players dove, he could be seen pacing, waving arms, yelling. At one point- it became clear later- Marsch called the Wolves player rolling at his feet a cheat. This caused (in my opinion) excess indignation from Portuguese manager Bruno Lage. The pair of managers spent the remaining match (and post-match) in a heated feud which led to a refused handshake from Lage, and Marsch yelling in his face, demanding he be given one. Marsch sat in the post-match sucking on a lozenge of some kind, reliving the events calmly, saying, “but that’s okay. I’m alright.”
Whatever Bruno did to rally his squad at the half, it worked. Wolves played tidier and more controlled football coming out of the half, keeping sole possession for nearly twenty minutes. The high tempo of oppressive pressure ebbed as Leeds looked utterly exhausted, chasing and chasing and chasing but never winning the ball.
Frustrations in the crowd could be felt. Chants began in earnest to encourage the players. If the players weren’t alert, I certainly was, as the man just in front kept banging on the press box wall, yelling, GO ON THEN LEEDS! GET TO IT! GET TO IT THEN LEEDS!
It looked a bit like Wolves would surely score if this went on. But Marsch made a few well-timed and perfectly chosen subs which reclaimed momentum. Mateusz Klich replaced Rodrigo in the 65th minute, and Sam Greenwood replaced Marc Roca in the 73rd. The changes had immediate impact. Energy returned, and Leeds soon found a second goal.
Like the first goal, the play started in part with one of the debuting Americans (and never mind what the Premier League says, it ended with one too). Tyler Adams slid a pretty pass into Mateusz Klich, who found Bamford on the wing. Bamford crossed the ball to Aaronson, descending at top speed on goal. Initially it looked like Aaronson ran it in, but it was ruled an own goal, knocked in by Nouri. To this day Aaronson claims it as his, and the crowd certainly felt that was the case. (Cue the first but not last USA chants of the day.)
The second goal was enough to settle it. Marsch sent in more fresh legs to see things out. Aaronson came off in the waning minutes, to uproarious applause. Tyler Adams played tough, through until the end (though accruing, it must be said, a rather foolish yellow at minute 94).
Down on the pitch, you could see Tyler Adams embrace injured Wolves and Mexican National Team striker, Raul Jiminez, after the final whistle. While making his way around thanking fans, Rasmus Kristensen wrapped Adams in an enormous bear hug before pumping his fist three times at the crowd.
The crowd was slow to leave. The duo of Americans were even slower. Adams and Aaronson walked around every corner of the pitch, thanking fans, giving their shirts away. Adams put his arm around Aaronson’s shoulder, just before they walked off.
It was around this time that Aaronson made his comment about some wonderful place, and the reason he can’t stop smiling.
I was in a Starbucks writing the next day- a pamphlet emblazoned with grinning Brenden Aaronson beside me- when a couple came in and sat beside us, looking down at Brenden’s smiling face and then up at mine in a way that conveyed: our cheery arrival was actually horrifying. “Americans”, they whispered in agreement, looking over with wary eye, like Paul Revere ringing the alarm in reverse.
And what alarm is it, exactly, that they’re ringing?
Perhaps in an anglophone nation so prone to absorption of American culture, there’s real fear we’ve come to infect this too. Maybe they think if too many Americans arrive, they’ll be forced to start singing the YMCA instead of We all love Leeds. Maybe they lay awake at night, haunted by the word soccer. Maybe, too, they just think Americans are shite at their sport.
On a grander scale, it’s perhaps not without reason that a proud old club would tread cautiously round the hoards of American fans who’ve popped up just now and out of nowhere, and seem to all be talking and cheering for specifically three men. Americans aren’t the only ones that do this, of course. As a few Leeds fans commented, Anybody know if we still have Argentine fans?
But, well, we’re here. We’re here in the midfield, here in press seats, here managing a Premier League team. We’re here in Starbucks, writing essays. We’re looping round the stadium, putting a microphone in your face. And undeniably, not everybody is happy that’s the case.
Make no mistake: if this goes poorly, if Leeds is relegated- hell, if Leeds doesn’t get relegated, but just barely stays up- it will be our fault. And to some extent, that’s not unfair, it’s just true.
From what I know of Adams, Aaronson, and Marsch, though- having sat in media sessions with all three, and a great many multitude of times with the two former- this isn’t a trio afraid of that being the case. These are characters that crave the challenge, want the pressure. If given a high bar they’ll say, put it higher. And so, now- aware of the pressure, and with a high bar- we’ll see.
The Swan Dive with Meg Swanick is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The afternoon and evening trailing behind victory was festive and full of hope. Reviews were singing for the American trio, and positive about the team. Adams and Aaronson looked excellent, played hard. Marsch got the subs just right. The bit with Bruno? We love to see it. Did you hear Aaronson had the most pressures in the league?
At one point I asked somebody for their thoughts on Brenden Aaronson, and he responded by simply starting to chant, USA! USA! (Fourth USA chant of the day, by my count). Never mind the lack of originality, I think it’s safe to say Leeds fans are (at least initially) enthused.
The season is long, and just starting. Leeds and their trio of Yanks have a long way left to go. Along the way, there may be wary eyes and pointed fingers. But you may also find that in downtown Leeds at the end of a match day, should you ask a stranger for thoughts on Brenden Aaronson, you’ll find strangers breaking out in chants of USA.
Meg - OUTSTANDING!! Thank you. You helped me time travel back to many visits to Prem matches featuring Americans. Enjoyed that -
And your writing - very much! Keep it up!
Great work, and a great read, thank you!! I'm from Leeds and a lifelong fan of 40 years, and can't wait to see how the season unfolds. Loving the new singings, Aaronson in particular but Tyler looks class. Love Jesse's passion. As for the word soccer, it comes from the word Association as in Association Football. Really don't see why people have an issue with it!! Thanks again ⚽🤍💛💙