A ruptured Achilles tendon is among the most fearsome diagnoses a professional player can receive.
An injury that threatened to end the careers of David Beckham, Santi Cazorla and others, it requires surgery and months of painstaking rehabilitation. And even after recovery, it can take months more to regain top form, if ever.
That’s the path Aaron Long has been walking since damaging his right Achilles on May 16. And despite having not played in a competitive match for club or country since then, the New York Red Bulls center back believes he’s on track to be available for selection when the US men’s national team opens their next World Cup qualifying window vs. El Salvador in Columbus on Jan. 27.
“I feel great. I mean, I'm not even eight months out yet, but I feel really good, I'm training full [speed],” Long told reporters in a Thursday afternoon media availability from USMNT camp in Arizona. “We had a scrimmage today. I got my minutes in the 11v11 scrimmage vs. Phoenix [Rising] today, so I'm feeling really good. Just got to keep getting fit and hopefully – and I got [two] more weeks until the qualifier, so yeah, should be good to go.”
That’s an aggressive outlook, especially considering the scheduling disadvantage he and other MLS-based players face in comparison to European-based USMNT counterparts currently in midseason form. But Long considers it a smaller mountain to climb than the path he navigated from twice-cut reserve-team midfielder with Portland and Seattle to 2018 MLS Defender of the Year, Best XI honoree and national-team regular.
“I think the first time you hit that adversity and you hit those bumps, you don't really know how to respond and how to react,” he said. “I've been through the long road and have hit a lot of these bumps already. So it was just another one, and it took that first week to kind of wrap my head around it. But after that it was just a mentality of powering through and kind of how I respond to these moments, and not looking back and looking at my leg and sitting on the couch and kind of feeling sorry for myself.
“So it wasn't the hardest thing I've dealt with.”
Long spoke in detail of the support provided to him by Gregg Berhalter and the rest of the USMNT staff, who brought him in during their November and December camps to spend time with the group even with months left in his recovery. He also made two trips to Austria last year for several weeks of specialized treatment at a Red Bull rehab facility.
“The hardest part for me was probably the first week, just kind of wrapping my head around it, not really being injured before in that manner,” Long explained. “And there's a lot of what-ifs and uncertainty of what's to come and people are telling you timelines, and ‘it's gonna feel like this and it's gonna look like this and this is what your next a couple months are going to look like,’ and it's just a weird thing to try to plan out something that I'm not familiar with. And obviously there's a lot of sadness in those moments too.
“But I think after that it was a different mindset and you kind of got to wrap your mind around what you want to do and what you want to become. You’ve just got to snap out of that. After that it was smooth sailing, luckily.”
For his part, Berhalter sounds much more conservative in his approach. Speaking to media on Monday, the coach hinted that the upcoming Octagonal qualifiers vs. El Salvador, Canada and Honduras will arrive too soon for Long to step straight back into the fray.
“He looks great. His progression from Cincinnati [camp in November] to December to now has been right in line – the line’s going [upward], he’s doing a good job,” said Berhalter. “For us it's about having fit players, having guys in rhythm, available. And I'm not sure he's going to get there [this month], but hopefully he’ll be close. And then we know he goes back to [MLS] preseason with his team and he plays games there in the start of the season, and hopefully in March we're having different conversations.”
Berhalter allowed that “it's reasonable to expect” Long to be in the mix for the United States’ final Ocho matchdays, a trio of qualifiers vs. Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica. He has shown in the past that he values the passing range, physicality and open-field defending that makes Long so key to RBNY’s high press, and the player expressed the scope of his trust in the coach on Thursday.
“Gregg was one of the first guys I talked to after the injury. I called him right away, and it was a good conversation,” said Long. “He's like, ‘Listen, we're with you, man. We'll support you in any way we can. We'll stay in touch,’ and kept true to that promise, and so did all the guys here from the medical staff, training staff.
“Everyone checked in on me, and I've been in the last two camps when I wasn't fully fit, just enough to get their eyes on me and help me with the rehab and progress me in ways that maybe that we weren't doing. And I feel like I'm here today in such good shape, not even eight months out, because of them.”
Long also recognizes that even at full speed he faces stiff competition amid the current USMNT defensive depth chart.
“There's a lot of guys right now that are playing really well. I think Gregg is very fortunate to have the group that he has in terms of central defenders,” said the Californian. “There's five, six guys now that are all putting up a good case. So it's just how do I show my best self, and to give my best self to the team in whatever way that the team needs me and whatever Gregg asks of me. That's all I can really do.”