The current best defender on the U.S. national team wasn't even a defender five years ago and was instead a central midfielder struggling to get his professional career going. Five years later, Aaron Long is starring for the U.S. national team and stands as the best defender in Major League Soccer.
So much has changed for Long in the past five years, when, as an MLS rookie, he was cut by the Portland Timbers, leaving him briefly unemployed and as far away as you could imagine from where he will be on Sunday, starting as the defensive leader for the U.S. national team in the Gold Cup final against Mexico.
The New York Red Bulls defender began his journey to the national team as a kid growing up in Southern California in the same area that produced such standouts as former USMNT captain Carlos Bocanegra and MLS legend Nick Rimando. Long attended camps held by Bocanegra when he was a youth player, and neither could have known that Long would one day fill the same role as defensive leader for the USMNT that Bocanegra filled for more than a decade.
"The career path that he’s had to get to where he is is incredible so it’s fun to root for him," Bocanegra told Goal. "I remember seeing him before he had that terrible mullet. He was always a good kid, and comes from a good family, so I couldn’t be happier for the kid because he just kept grinding, kept going, believing in himself. It’s nice to see him with the national team, especially when he captained the country. That was pretty cool."
Back then, Long was a midfielder, and being a defender was the furthest thing from his mind. His favorite player growing up was someone that might surprise New York Red Bulls fans.
"I was an Arsenal supporter so I really liked Patrick Vieira, so that was kind of my guy," Long admits of the former New York City FC head coach. "He was just a destroyer. Against the ball he was unbelievable, winning the ball back, and then, with the ball, he could make the game pretty. It was one of those things he could do both sides of the ball and do it for, in my opinion, one of the best teams in the world."
Long wasn't well-known outside of Southern California due to the fact he played collegiately for UC-Riverside, a smaller program in the shadow of college soccer powerhouses like UCLA. After finishing college, Long wasn't invited to the MLS Combine but still managed to be drafted as a second-round pick by the Portland Timbers, the 36th overall selection in the 2014 MLS Draft.
Long never played for Portland's first team, bouncing around on loan spells with USL teams before he was cut in the summer of 2014. After a stint with the Seattle Sounders playing for their USL affiliate, Long received an offer from the New York Red Bulls. The only condition was that he would be joining them to play as a center back, a position that Long hadn't played much at that point, but it was a position then-Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch believed could suit Long.
"When I watched him play you could see he had a lot of tools. He was big, he was fast, he was good on the ball, he was good in the air, so I thought why not take a look at him," Marsch told Goal. "We asked him if he would be willing to come here if it meant spending a year with Red Bulls II, learning our system."
"I gave myself a timeline," Long said of his decision to join the Red Bulls. "If it doesn’t work, if I go to Red Bulls and it doesn’t work for two years then I have to do something else, but I was still in the mindset of making it."
The move to the Red Bulls was transformational. After initially struggling for consistent starts due to first-team Red Bulls defenders stepping in to get minutes, Long settled in as a regular starter for a Red Bulls II team that went on to win a USL title, with Long earning USL defender of the year along the way. Despite his status as a second-team player, Long saw plenty of Marsch, who worked closely with him, going over film with him and getting him ready for the move to the Red Bulls first team, which came after one season in USL.
"He’s funny, he’s likeable, his work ethic is so strong. He’s not afraid," Marsch said of Long. "When you work with him up close, Dave Sarachan learned this and I think Gregg (Berhalter) has too, you can’t help but like him. You can’t help but like the way he works every day, the way that he trains, the way that he treats his teammates. Once he got into the program I had a really good feeling that he would be able to establish himself on a big level."
Now the manager at Austrian champion RB Salzburg after a season as an assistant with RB Leipzig, Marsch believes Long has also shown a good ability to adjust to different challenges, and would be capable of succeeding if he made a similar move to Europe, which is why interest in Long from European clubs has grown, with German club Eintracht Frankfurt among the teams to have expressed interest in him.
"It’s been nice to see how Aaron has been able to adapt to a different way of playing," Marsch said. "I still believe that his max potential is when he plays our way, when he plays really strong against the ball, when he uses his athleticism. What it shows with the national team is this kid can play in a lot of different ways, and at a lot of different levels, and I do believe he can thrive in Europe."
Marsch left the Red Bulls for Europe in the summer of 2018, but Long hasn't forgotten the role Marsch played in helping his career take off.
"I owe him a lot. In a lot of ways he set me up to be where I am," Long said of Marsch. "He didn’t just play me there, he believed in me, he coached me. Those video sessions early on giving me the belief when I was a Red Bulls II guy, saying ‘listen, trust me, keep going down this path, you’re going to be a first-team player'."
Long blossomed as a starter for the Red Bulls in 2017 and was named MLS defender of the year in 2018, developing a reputation as an elite one-on-one defender capable of holding his own against the league's star strikers.
"He’s really shined and picked up the position fantastically because he didn’t play it growing up and that’s a difficult position at the higher level because it’s all about reading and instincts and the positional and tactical awareness," Bocanegra said. "So for a kid who didn’t play that growing up in your developmental years when you’re getting into the game, it’s fantastic.
"He’s hard to beat one on one," Bocanegra said. "The kid just doesn’t stop. I remember a few times when he came back against (Atlanta United), chasing down Josef (Martinez) or whatever, he makes himself hard to beat. He’s just got that grit and determination."
"For collegiate players, and American players that want to make it, he’s for me a poster child for them because it’s not easy for an American player nowadays," LA Galaxy assisrtant, and Long's college coach at UC-Riverside, Junior Gonzalez told Goal. "So many of us in the league are looking at South American players and international players, and he had to struggle. He had to go through his adversity in multiple environments."
Long's rapid rise in MLS eventually carried over to the U.S. national team, which he didn't make his debut for until just last October. When Berhalter took charge as U.S. coach in January, Long quickly became a key figure in his plans, earning starts and even the captain's armband for the first two friendlies of 2019.
"We had this conversation with Dave Sarachan, we even had this discussion with Gregg Berhalter, when they watch him at first they don’t really rate (Long)," Marsch said. "Things that coaches sometimes don’t include is personality and what that means for their overall potential. I’m a big believer in personality. As much as guys like Tyler Adams and Matt Miazga are prodigies and good football players, it’s their personality that allows them to be as good as they can possibly be and that’s the case with Aaron."
Long has quickly taken on a role of defensive leader, and his play in the Gold Cup has been a major reason the team has allowed just one goal heading into Sunday's final. Now he will have a big task in trying to contain Mexico striker Raul Jimenez, the type of challenge Long has grown accustomed to defending against star strikers in MLS such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney.
Long is ready for the challenge of playing in a Gold Cup final, and the chance to play in his first USA-Mexico match. After growing up watching the rivals face each other, Long is excited for the opportunity to realize a dream, and continue the rapid rise his career has been in over these past five years.
"Building on what I’ve experienced as a fan, and to now come into the locker room and seeing the way the veterans are responding to this game, it really gets you hyped up," he said.
"I’m a Southern California kid so I’ve got a lot of Mexican friends. USA-Mexico games were a big feature for me and my friends, so it means a lot to me, and my family and friends. I know the importance of this game."