HANOVER, N.J. – Experience is believed to be a key element in a successful defender, but Aaron Long may be upending that wisdom a bit.
Long never played a minute in MLS before this season, but suddenly the New York Red Bulls defender has staked his claim to a starting spot on the team’s backline.
Long spent last season in the USL with the New York Red Bulls II, who won the league title, but now he’s jumped into prominence in the Red Bulls' first team, having played every minute of the young MLS season so far. His three starts in league play alongside two starts in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League are a small sample size but the 24-year old has been solid. His positioning, physical play and winning battles against seasoned attacking players has impressed.
His first start, a 2-1 win to open the season at Atlanta United, showed some jitters but Long settled into the match. By the second half he looked comfortable and decisive, traits that are building each week heading into Saturday’s match at Red Bull Arena against Real Salt Lake (4 pm ET | UniMás, Facebook.com/UnivisionDeportes).
Because of his experience in the USL last year, Long understood the system in place and tactically what is expected of the center backs. It also didn’t hurt that before the season head coach Jesse Marsch expressed his confidence in the player.
“He trusts me and he believes in me. He wouldn’t put me there if he didn’t think I could do the job. That gave me a lot of confidence but it was definitely a nervous moment,” Long told MLSsoccer.com of Marsch’s message to him before the season opener.
“We came out with a win [in] my first game so it was a good one.”
Despite the current state of his career, getting to this point saw plenty of twists and turns with Long even questioning if he had a future in soccer.
A 2014 MLS SuperDraft pick of the Portland Timbers, he was released by the team midway through his rookie year. He then joined the Seattle Sounders and eventually Seattle Sounders FC 2 in the USL. Long then found his way to the East Coast last season, making 22 starts in the USL for New York Red Bulls II, picking up USL Defender of the Year honors at the end of the year.
“There’s always doubts, any time you leave a team or get cut or anything like that – there’s always doubts in your mind but luckily I’ve surrounded myself with good friends and family who believe in me,” Long said.
“I found a good opportunity here, I’m running with it.”
Ahead of the season opener, the 24-year-old paused to consider his journey before starting in the center of the Red Bulls defense for a team with playoff and Supporters' Shield ambitions in a packed stadium and a hostile environment.
“I knew it was a long road for me, it was a special moment in front of a big crowd. I had a lot of things to prove to myself and to my teammates but my teammates made me feel very comfortable on the field,” Long said.
“They told me they believed in me, that helped a lot.”