Six weeks ago, Aaron Long suffered a hamstring injury that looked like it might put his place in the Concacaf Gold Cup in jeopardy, but his two-goal performance in the U.S. national team's 6-0 romp over Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday provided the best evidence to date that the New York Red Bulls defender is back to his best.
The reigning MLS defender of the year scored the first goal and last goal in the Saturday’s victory, becoming the first USMNT defender to score twice in the same match. He also led the U.S. defense to its second consecutive shutout, delivering the kind of complete performance that strengthens Long's status as the USMNT's most important defender.
“As he gets more fit, he’s a dynamic player,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said of Long. “We rate him highly. We think we have four good center backs in camp, and together with Walker [Zimmerman] they formed a good pairing in these first games.”
Pre-tournament injuries to John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, along with the more recent loss of Tyler Adams, threatened to leave the U.S. defense in shambles, making Long’s return from a hamstring injury that much more vital.
Long’s comeback endured a rough start, with his first game action after the injury coming in the USMNT’s 3-0 pre-Gold Cup loss to Venezuela. Long struggled to deal with powerful Venezuelan striker and Newcastle United standout Salomon Rondon, and left at halftime with the Americans trailing 3-0.
"It’s definitely not how I envisioned my first 45 minutes back, especially with the national team, you get three goals scored on you in 45," Long said. "And to know that before the game started that I was only going to play 45 minutes. so to have to come off at halftime when I wanted to go back out there was tough, but yeah, you need those moments. You need to grow from that. We’ve watched so much film on that stuff, we’ve been through the film so many times as a team and now we’re flying so it feels good."
Long is key to the USMNT's defensive organization because of his ability to handle tough strikers one-on-one, and the one-time midfielder's improving passing range has him looking comfortable in Berhalter's possession-based system. He has formed a solid partnership with Zimmerman, providing the mobility and man marking to go with Zimmerman's aerial dominance.
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Long is also a threat to score, as he showed on the opening USMNT goal, as we as on the game-ending tally that saw him venture forward and join the attack to chest home a rebound of a saved shot, to the surprise of some of his teammates.
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"I probably shouldn’t have been up there to be honest," Long joked. "Walker was freaking out and screaming at me after the goal. Tim [Ream] and me switched spots for that play so I was just caught up on the wing."
With Long rounding into form, he should be a fixture in the U.S. defense when the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup begin, and it will be up to Berhalter to decide whether to keep Long in the lineup for Wednesday's group finale against Panama, or rest him while giving someone like Matt Miazga or Omar Gonzalez a start, in order to have Long ready for the quarterfinals.
After two straight starts, and shutouts, Long sounds like a player who is ready to play every minute of the tournament, and keep building on performances like Saturday's gem.
"I feel great. As the games go on you get more confident," Long said. "You get in the groove. Scoring goals helps with that for sure. Confidence is getting higher, for me and for the group."