MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Inside Aaron Long's transition from fringe midfielder to MLS Defender of the Year

Aaron Long - New York Red Bulls - Close up

Trying desperately to make an impression on trial with the New York Red Bulls in 2016, Aaron Long picked up a few bruises along the way.

Learning on the fly the finer points of playing center back for the first time in his life, positioning was a work in progress for the natural center mid. His desire to make a good impression and earn a contract with the team had him flying around under RBNY's high-octane, high-pressing ethos. In his second scrimmage, it led to him charging into the midfield to win possession. 

The only problem on that particular play, he and teammate Tyler Adams clattered into each other trying to tackle the same player. A then-unknown Adams — long before he broke out with the first team, US national team and then RB Leipzig — won the ball anyway, taking down the attacker and Long at once. He was also none too pleased with the trialist's decision. 

“Tyler looks at me and is like, 'what are you doing? Who is this kid?'" Long told He was still on the ground recovering from the car-crash like collision. "Mind you, he’s like 17 at the time and I’m like what the hell is going on?”

Inside Aaron Long's transition from fringe midfielder to MLS Defender of the Year -

Happier times for Long and Adams, celebrating a goal in 2018 | USA Today Sports

Long's larger story is well known by now.

He had been a center mid his whole life, drafted in the second round of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft by the Portland Timbers and never made an MLS appearance. Ditto for a stint with the Seattle Sounders. The Red Bulls offered him a chance to go on trial with the club, though with a new idea: We want you to try a new position. 

He was skeptical. Do I really want to try out for a team in a position I've never played before? 

“I wasn’t super pumped, to be honest," Long admitted.

The Red Bulls were clear in their communication, so Long knew exactly what he was getting into. Head coach Jesse Marsch saw Long as a center back and expressed he was only going to be used as a defender. "We think his qualities would translate well in that position under our style," Marsch told Long's agent. "If he has dreams of making it in MLS as a center mid, well, this ain't the club for him and we wish him the best."

After a chat with his agent, who stressed 'if Marsch thinks you're MLS quality, then he means it. He's not just saying it to stack the club's USL affiliate with no path to the first team.' Long decided to give it a go.

"I'd say it's the best decision I ever made," he said.

Ironically, before Long would go transition to life as a defender, before winning MLS Defender of the Year, captaining the USMNT and much more, his idol was a center back.

Carlos Bocanegra was the USMNT captain and came from Southern California like Long. Long attended his local camps all the way back to the first one, as he saw a path he could follow to the pros.

“He was my idol that I could see, feel and touch," Long said. "It wasn’t like he was an Arsenal player or something like that.”

Another center back that Long grew an affinity for was Chad Marshall, during his time with the Sounders. 

One of the league's best defenders, Marshall amassed more than 400 MLS appearances, won three Defender of the Year accolades and was named to MLS Best XI four times. 

“When I got into the professional world and I got to see who (Marshall) was as a person and as a player when I was in Seattle, I was like, oh my God I’ve never seen such a dominant defender in my life," Long said. "I was amazed. Plus he’s like the funniest guy alive, so wins all around there."

Long had no clue he would soon be playing the same position as one of the all-time greats.

“I don’t know so much if I was learning from him at the time," Long said. "When I got to the Red Bulls and got into being a center back, I tried to think back. Like, oh my God how was I playing with Chad Marshall and I wasn’t watching every move that he made? I tried to think back for what he would do in those situations."

It's worked out pretty well for the USMNT defender.