National Writer: Charles Boehm

What Aaron Long's Achilles injury means for USMNT, New York Red Bulls

Injuries are an inherently unfortunate part of the professional sports landscape. But some of them sting worse than others, even for observers far removed from the pain and loss of the player experiencing them.

Such is the case for Aaron Long. The 28-year-old suffered a ruptured Achilles — not quite as devastating as a torn ACL, but close — on Saturday that ends his New York Red Bulls season, severely jeopardizes his role in the US men’s national team’s busy 2021 schedule and blights one of the more inspiring player-development stories in recent MLS history.

If you’re not yet familiar with Long’s rise from anonymous second-team center mid prospect to national team-captaining center back star, nurtured in particular by one Jesse Marsch, read what the likes of Tom Bogert and Brian Straus have written about him and his odds-defying journey. Ponder one of his final quotes to Straus in a 2019 feature: “I’m riding a wave right now and I want to see where it goes.”

This one hurts.

With his passing range, mobility and aptitude for 1v1 defending in space, Long is a foundational piece for the Red Bulls and their hyper-aggressive press. His skill set allows both him and his teammates to take risks many other central defenders can’t cover for -- to push higher up the pitch, to step into tackles and 50/50 situations with just a bit more bite and commitment knowing that he’s back there to clean up in case it goes wrong.

That’s why RBNY have rejected multiple seven-figure transfer offers for Long from abroad. It’s a factor in their trade of his longtime partner Tim Parker to Houston over the winter for $450,000 in GAM plus performance-based incentives that could reap a further $600K for the Red Bulls. While Parker, Tyler Adams, Alex Muyl and other members of their 2018 Supporters’ Shield-winning side have been shipped out, Long remains, because he’s something of a unicorn for making their high press hum.

Replacing him will not be straightforward, for club or country.

How can the USMNT cope?

Coach Gregg Berhalter has repeatedly demonstrated his trust in Long, generally preferring him ahead of other right center back options like Matt Miazga, Chris Richards and Mark McKenzie. With the Concacaf Nations League semifinals and final looming, he is fortunate that central defense is a position of relative strength for the United States.

Still on the books at Bayern Munich, Richards has taken a big step forward during his loan stint at Hoffenheim and was already likely to get a look in Berhalter’s upcoming camps. A member of Chelsea’s “loan army” who’s currently at Anderlecht, Miazga seems to have earned a place in the USMNT rotation and conventional wisdom would rank him and Richards as the frontrunners for Long’s spot.

Nashville SC anchor and reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman should also be in the mix given his familiarity with the USMNT setting and a toolkit comparable to Long’s.

A younger and even more fleet-footed MLS option is Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson, 24, who has shown an aptitude for handling the same kind of tactical challenges that Long mastered on his rise to prominence. Notably, Robinson was slated to start for the US U-23 national team at Olympic qualifying in March before the Five Stripes elected to decline that call-up in light of their Concacaf Champions League campaign.

Elsewhere, Cameron Carter-Vickers is a more traditional, rough-and-tumble center back option who has found a rich vein of form on his loan from Tottenham Hotspur to Bournemouth, becoming an ever-present for the Cherries as they mount a promotion push in the English Championship. He’s expected to transfer to a new club this summer and could well hitch a ride into the Premiership should Bournemouth navigate a path through the promotion playoffs.

How can RBNY cope?

With their center back cornerstone likely out for at least six months, the Red Bulls are in much hotter water than the USMNT. Gerhard Struber and co. have stockpiled plenty of fullback depth, wise given the demands their system places on that position, but central defense is a different story.

RBNY are currently left with Amro Tarek, Sean Nealis and Andres Reyes as specialist center backs on their first-team roster – and Tarek himself exited with an injury against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, an hour or so before Long was hobbled in second-half injury time. This season Nealis has won the starting job next to Long, while the technical staff have been measured with their handling of winter signing Reyes, who spent 2020 on loan at Inter Miami from Colombian side Atletico Nacional.

In the short term Reyes, assuming he’s gained any degree of trust from Struber yet, or Tarek need to step up. Given that Long has been placed on the season-ending injury list, the Red Bulls do have some room to maneuver for a reinforcement from outside, and can look to sibling clubs in Austria, Germany and Brazil for potential stopgaps. Their international roster slot outlook is tight, though, and with Long’s value to their setup so obvious, they can expect other MLS teams to drive a hard bargain on the domestic trade market.

All that said, with their productive academy and USL Championship second team RBNY have constructed one of the top player-development pathways in MLS – after all, Long is its most prized product. Could his heir come from within?

The Red Bulls do have some comparable center-back projects in the works, including Emir Tombul, Englishman Mandela Egbo and 2021 SuperDraft pick Lamine Conte. Academy product Joey Zalinsky has logged time in the club’s first- and second-team training environments, though he’s slated to matriculate at Rutgers later this year. It’s something of a long shot, no pun intended, but perhaps RBNY will ponder circling back to offer him a faster route towards a pro contract.