What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal: Aaron Long
3:04 PM EDT on September 30, 2022
Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
The United States men's national team has finished their slate of pre-World Cup tune-up games, and the mood within the fanbase is sour and recriminatory. Playing against Japan, a fine team, and Saudi Arabia, a bad team, the U.S. managed two shots on goal, lost by an aggregate of 2–0, and looked somehow even worse than their meager statline would indicate. Gregg Berhalter's USMNT has not yet received its first meaningful test, and yet even against two non-elite national teams the U.S.'s shortcomings and limits of the squad and its organization were alarmingly apparent. If the USMNT can't even score one goal in 180 minutes against, by World Cup standards, relative chumps, what is going to happen to these poor bastards when they have to face Harry Kane and Gareth Bale in the group stage of the World Cup?
If one were to look for a silver lining, the compromised lineup would be the place to start. Several key players—Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Sergiño Dest—are not playing much for their clubs, and they looked worryingly rusty. At least three key starters were out, including Yunus Musah, who is starting to look like one of the most important players on the team due to his ability to build possession and attacks through pressure. Two of those missing starters play along the backline in a unit that, without them, looked unprepared to control the ball, build possession, or even defend in space. Berhalterball is all about attacking with the fullbacks and deputizing the center backs to play balls into space and advance slowly up the field. Without Antonee Robinson to provide width, and with a compromised center back pairing, the team's entire way of playing falls apart. This is to say, Aaron Long, this week's USMNT Guy, should not see the field pretty much ever again for the U.S.
Who Does He Play For?
Aaron Long plays for the New York Red Bulls, an energy drink-branded concern playing soccer out of the tri-state area in the second-best league in North America. After three years of second-division soccer, Long broke into the NYRB first team in 2017, at age 25, completing a frankly incredible rise. Long played four years of college ball and languished as a center midfield prospect within the Sounders' and Timbers' systems. He envisioned himself as a "Brad Evans-type," someone who could help a team anywhere from defensive midfield to any spot on the backline. Long never found his footing in the northwest, though once Jesse Marsch convinced him to switch positions and move to center back, he started crushing it. In 2018, he was named MLS's defender of the year as the Red Bulls allowed only 33 goals in a Supporter's Shield–winning season. European teams, and the USMNT, soon started calling. Long's athleticism, size, and theoretically midfield-level passing game made him an attractive prospect, and West Ham nearly purchased him in 2020.
Then, it all came crashing down. Long tore his Achilles tendon in 2021, forcing him out for a whole year. Ironically enough, he only worked his way back into the national team picture after Miles Robinson also tore an Achilles. Long has since started the six most recent USMNT games.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
The theoretical fully realized version of Long is an athletic, ball-playing center back. This Long is good in the air, comfortable with the ball at his feet, and fast enough to make recoveries in space. The post-injury Long, however, is not quite the same player. He's a touch slower, which makes his positional mishaps more costly. At the MLS level, neo-Long is still a good defender—he made the all-star team this summer—but it's become clear that he's a notch below his competitors in the U.S. player pool. Berhalter wants his center backs to start attacks, and Long gave away the ball in his own half what felt like 1,000 times against Japan and Saudi Arabia. He likes to run into the midfield to break up an attack or advance the ball, and though he does tend to pick the right spots and this whole thing works in MLS, again, he will not be able to get away with that against England, Wales, and Iran.
I have been mean to Long here, so I will say: he has the best hair on the team.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Long is about to turn 30, plays center back, and is a cut below like five other center backs in the USMNT player pool, so he gets a 2 out of 503. I should stress here, after I've been quite rude to Long, that this is as much about the unlucky injury he suffered than his quality as a player. Before he suffered just about the worst possible playing-related injury an athlete can suffer, Long was the best defender in MLS and had some good games for the national team. Even now, he's the Red Bulls captain for a reason and was a deserving all-star. If the USMNT was playing, like, the Montreal Impact, I'd be very happy with Long starting. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
Though he has played a number of positions throughout his career, Long has, curiously, not played much right back. He is right-footed though, and he plays at the back, and if you combine those two adjectives you get right back.
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How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
He's a passing center back who can't really pass as well as the rest of his cohort yet he's somehow locked a spot as the third-choice center back. I don't know man, maybe Gregg Berhalter should be evaluating players based on their present-day performance and not remembering who was good the last time he coached in MLS. John Brooks died for this man! John Brooks is good, and also younger!
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
Gregg Berhalter loves Aaron Long and clearly trusts him over both the young players who are better than him (Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Mark McKenzie) and the older players who are better than him (Brooks, Tim Ream). The silver lining, I suppose, is that a healthy Chris Richards still gets the starting job alongside Walker Zimmerman, so a fully realized USMNT does not have Aaron Long in it. However, I don't trust Berhalter enough to believe he won't play Long at some point in Qatar, despite the aforementioned flaws.