And now for Long, a whirlwind second year in MLS has him possibly in the mix for a first call-up to the US national team.
Before arriving as a trialist with the Red Bulls early in 2016, Long was coming off being cut by the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders USL teams, having never made an appearance for either team in MLS play.
Now over the past year, Long has emerged not just as a starting level center back for one of the better teams in MLS, but a standout one at that.
The 25-year old is on the cusp of the next step forward in his young career, this a couple years after he thought it could well be over.
“I guess my whole career has kind of been a whirlwind, but the last year and a half has been an uptick for me,” Long told MLSsoccer.com.
“I never thought soccer wasn’t for me, but I just didn’t know if I’d catch my break. It is something all players have to deal with in their career. There are lots of players who are good enough, but for some good reason you don’t get lucky enough, you don’t catch your break. And yeah, those questions were in my head – if it didn’t work out here at Red Bulls, I was going to find something to do.”
Aaron Long | USA Today Sports Images
So if the preseason tryout three years ago hadn’t worked out, Long said he would have gone back to college – “My mom would have killed me if I didn’t go back to school and get my degree.”
In last week's scoreless draw against Chivas de Guadalajara in the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinals, Long was arguably the best player on the field. Reading the game well as he partnered with fellow center back Tim Parker in the heart of the Red Bulls defense, he was solid positionally, snuffing out service.
It was a different story a little over a year ago in the CCL for Long, who made his debut with the senior team in the quarterfinals of the 2017 tournament against the Vancouver Whitecaps. He was shaky and timid.
“I remember that game, it was so hectic for me. My brain was going…a thousand miles a minute, just the speed. It seemed so much easier at the USL level and then coming in to the first team and how fast we play, everything was multiplied by 10,” Long said.
“Definitely no doubts because I was coming off a good year, but it was more of there is going to be a learning curve for sure. I was going to have to speed up the pace of play. Everything was going to be quicker at this level.”
Long can be a bit shy with the media, but with his teammates, his personality comes to life, particularly as a prankster.
He tells a story from last year, somehow convincing teammate Vincent Bezecourt to dye his hair. Bezecourt didn’t want anything crazy, just a subtle shade. Long substituted a bottle of bleach blonde dye without Bezecourt knowing it.
Long said he’s scaled back on his pranks as he’s gotten more established with the team, but looks back on that one fondly – “he’s so gullible,” Long said with a laugh when talking about Bezecourt.
Opposing forwards these days don’t have much to laugh about when they line up against an athletic defender who is strong in the area, reads the game well and covers a lot of turf in his recovery runs.
Three years ago, the Red Bulls identified him as a center back, even early on when he was in preseason with the team in 2016.
He admits to nerves at moving from central midfield, where he played in college and with the Timbers and Sounders USL teams, to the backline. But he’s taken to it well.
In his first year at his new position, with Red Bulls II, Long was named the USL’s top defender.
He’s taken a step up each of the last two years and is now in the conversation among the best defenders in MLS, something that even has pleasantly surprised Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch.
“Um, no is the answer,” Marsch said when asked if he expected this level of growth from Long.
“We understood that Aaron had potential and that he was athletic, but I think it even took us time to recognize how athletic he is or has become. And then you could always see the energy, the personal energy, the personality he had. But when we made him a USL player that first year, we said to him that ‘your ceiling is bigger than others who have an MLS contract right now, but it’s important for you to get games and acclimate.’ He’s done that at a massive rate and for me, he’s among the top center backs in the league and should be a strong, strong candidate for the national team.”