By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Nov 9, 2018) US Soccer Players - MLS announced the New York Red Bulls’ Aaron Long as 2018 Defender of the Year on Wednesday. The 26-year old centerback beat out three-time Defender of the Year Chad Marshall to the award, garnering an impressive 33.33% of the media vote in his second full MLS campaign.
The players around him in the Red Bulls defense certainly helped. Behind Long is Luis Robles, a 2018 Goalkeeper of the Year finalist and a regular fixture on lists of the league’s best backstops. Playing alongside Long is Tim Parker, a veteran MLS centerback with over 100 appearances between the Red Bulls and his previous team, the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The fullback who mans the right side of the field, the same side Long typically plays for New York, was also a Defender of the Year finalist. Though Kemar Lawrence finished at the bottom of the five-man shortlist, the fact that he made that list as a fullback is an incredible achievement. In 23 years, no fullback has taken home Defender of the Year.
The Red Bulls system naturally played a role in Long’s excellent season as well. It’s impossible to separate the player from his team. The Red Bull press forces turnovers up the field, slows the opposing attack, and creates the environment necessary for Long to stand out.
Long earned his award like so many Defenders of the Year tend too. By playing stellar individual soccer within a well-drilled, organized structure that highlighted his abilities. He also earned it after a long and winding road very different from the one most of the previous winners followed.
He's a product of professional development and a poster child for the Red Bulls top-to-bottom approach to the process. If a player with the background of Long can rise to the level of elite MLS defender, then perhaps the rest of the league should take notice.
Long was not highly rated coming out of UC Riverside in California, where he played four seasons of college soccer and entered the 2014 MLS SuperDraft as a midfielder. The Portland Timbers grabbed Long in the second round and promptly sent him out on loan to their USL affiliate, Sacramento Republic. After playing just a handful of games for that club, Long played on loan with the Orange County Blues of the same league. In neither place did Long shine or show significant promise.
The Timbers gave up on Long midway through the 2014 season. By July he had already moved up the Pacific coast to Seattle, where he served as training ground fodder for the balance of the campaign. It wasn’t until signing with Sounders 2 in March of 2015 that Long moving fully into a senior team setting. Sounders 2 is where Long began the switch from midfielder to defender, a process he completed by the time he signed with New York Red Bulls II at the start of the 2016 season.
For a second time, a team passed on further developing Long, deciding that his progress wasn’t enough to justify a spot on their reserve team.
Long played 22 games for Red Bulls II in 2016, helping the side to a USL Cup championship in the process. To say the experience was invaluable for the defender would be a massive understatement. It was in the USL that Long proved his value as a pro and built the confidence to play the centerback position.
The player himself recognized how important it was to be able to focus on one position. Long was good enough at centerback in 2016 as a member of Red Bulls II to earn the USL Defender of the Year award that season. By the end of the 2016 MLS season, Long was a member of the first team and suited up as a reserve during the playoffs. He debuted in MLS in September, two-and-a-half years after his selection in the SuperDraft.
There aren’t many teams in MLS that would even consider giving a 24-year old journeyman a chance to win a starting spot at a position as important as centerback. The Red Bulls are one of them. Going into 2017, Long was already a potential fixture in the back line, despite his limited first division experience. He went on to make 30 regular season starts and played every minute of the Red Bulls’ three-game playoff run. If not the first name on the team sheet for then-coach Jesse Marsch, Long was not far down the list.
Established as a first-choice centerback for 2018, Long took another step forward. His play was good enough to merit a call-up to the US Men’s National Team for October’s friendlies against Colombia and Peru. Long made his international debut against Peru, playing 90 minutes and earning solid reviews in a full 90-minute performance.
Long’s story would be remarkable in almost any other MLS setting. Neither the Timbers nor the Sounders saw his potential and jettisoned Long before he had a chance to establish himself in their systems. Both possessed nominal mechanisms for development, the Sounders more so than the Timbers at the time they had Long in their systems. Neither could leverage those mechanisms enough to help Long round into an MLS-caliber player. Either they gave up too soon or simply missed on Long.
The Red Bulls have made a habit of turning marginal players stuck in the proverbial mud of an early career into first-team contributors. Long might be the most famous now because of his Defender of the Year award, but he’s part of a group that includes Florian Valot and Vincent Bezecourt. All of them are players who found their way to the Red Bulls from outside of the system, seasoned in the Red Bulls II program, and moved up to the first team.
American soccer has tried very hard to wean itself off a reliance on late bloomers over the last decade. The effort to establish functional and productive academy systems has driven down the average age of the league’s youngest stars. In Long’s own team, Tyler Adams is an exemplar for that idea. Adams was ready to graduate to first-team soccer before his 20th birthday.
Long reminds us that later bloomers will probably always be a part of the story here, if only because college soccer is so entrenched and a system that turns out a critical mass of first-team caliber teenagers is still a long way off.
As long as that’s the case, there will be room for stories like Long’s. A talented player who needed a smart, willing team to see him from a professional entry point to a place of meeting his potential. With the right attention, another one might even merit a year-end award like the one Long won on Wednesday.
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Photo by Tony Quinn - ISIPhotos.com