If there’s a level playing field to be found anywhere at an MLS club, where some make millions while others carpool to training with roommates, it’s in the sauna at the Seattle Sounders’ Starfire practice facility. That was the place where one of those millionaires, Clint Dempsey, often would hold court.
Dempsey could be guarded, curt and cautious. But once you were familiar, you could become something like extended family. And that was the case whether you were his playing peer, an assistant equipment manager or Aaron Long, a relative no-name whose most significant soccer accomplishment at the time was the All-Big West selection that followed his junior season at UC Riverside.
Inside the sauna, you were just another teammate in a towel. All were equal.
“After training, he was always in there,” Long said of Dempsey. “We’d have these little sauna talks.”
It turned out they had something in common that may have sparked some of those talks—a late start. Until the day he retired and no matter what he accomplished, Dempsey was fueled by the time he missed. When Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were 20, they were at the World Cup. When Dempsey was 20, he was a junior at Furman. He wasn’t scouted or celebrated as a youth, and then as a pro, his determination to compensate for that delay was relentless. He spoke about it frequently. Dempsey wasn’t focused on establishing dominance or dominion where he was. He fixated on forging a new path through higher and more challenging terrain.
“In terms of Clint, he did mention that: ‘I’m against the clock.’ He’d say little things like that. I figured strikers just have that mentality,” Long told SI.com. “I don’t know if I’m racing against the clock. But I do know I have things I want to accomplish, and I have less time in my pro career. I’m very aware.”
They now have something more in common. They’re unlikely U.S. national team players. Long’s status isn’t in question now, even though he has only 11 caps. After a strong Concacaf Gold Cup—during which the central defender started five of six games, scored twice and earned a spot on the tournament’s Best XI—he seems like the most probable starter among the backs selected to take part in the USA’s upcoming friendlies against Mexico (Friday at the Meadowlands) and Uruguay (Sept. 10 in St. Louis). To draw a line from that spot in U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter’s 11 to the beginning of Long’s career in San Bernardino County, Calif., seems almost impossible.
“It’s a story. It’s incredible,” said Chris Armas, Long’s coach at the New York Red Bulls. “It wasn’t the natural progression of guys coming through the national team ranks—youth national teams. It just wasn’t the path that he took. It was the one less traveled. He gets a lot of the credit—most of the credit. He has to.”
Long said, “I wasn’t exactly a top dog coming through.”
To say the least.
Long grew up about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, over the San Gabriel Mountains in what he called “the high desert.”
“He’s not really from California. He’s from the desert. you know? He claims he’s from L.A., but he’s from like an hour-and-a-half away,” said good friend (really) and Red Bulls center back partner Tim Parker. “We land at LAX and we get to [the hotel in] Santa Monica and he goes, ‘[inhales deeply] Ah, I’m home.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re like an hour-and-a-half away. what are you talking about?’”
Long made the Cal South state team once, in his final year of eligibility. He played near the fringes, and when it was time to pick a school he signed his one and only scholarship offer, from family friend and Riverside coach Junior Gonzalez. Long was a robust, athletic box-to-box midfielder, and at the end of his senior season at Riverside, even though he wasn’t invited to the 2014 MLS combine, he’d done enough to get drafted toward the end of the second round by the Portland Timbers. He went on two USL loans and then was cut in July.
The rival Sounders scooped him up, and Long rode the bench for the rest of 2014 before starting the following season with S2, the club’s new USL reserve outfit (it’s now Tacoma Defiance). It was in Seattle, before those sauna talks, that Long’s evolution began. Sigi Schmid appreciated Long’s midfield versatility and imagined him as a “Brad Evans-type”—someone who could transition between multiple positions in midfield and along the back line.
But Evans was still entrenched as the Sounders’ resident Brad Evans-type, leaving Long to spend the year in the USL. By its conclusion, he was 23 and still hadn’t played an MLS minute. The Sounders offered to bring Long back as the S2 captain in 2016. There also was interest in the Twin Cities, where Minnesota United was making its expedited jump to MLS. And then there was a somewhat surprising call from the New York Red Bulls, whose enticing proposal came with a hard and fast condition.
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch promised Long a preseason with the first team. But it was going to be as a center back. And only as a center back.
It was not an easy decision.
“It was moving across the country. I’ve been a west coast guy my whole life, Even Portland and Seattle are a couple hours a way from my parents. My girlfriend, who I’m still with, lived in Seattle at the time,” Long recalled. “Then there’s the whole thing where like, I don't know anyone on the Red Bulls. I don’t know anything about Jesse Marsch. I don’t know anything about this Red Bulls system, this Red Bulls pressing. And I have to play this whole new position that I don’t really love, to be honest. As a center mid, you don’t love center back. You want be on the ball.”
But he also wanted to avoid regression. And he could feel the clock starting to tick. So he packed up and switched coasts, making the sort of leap into the unknown that’s often necessary to further or jumpstart a career. Dempsey would’ve approved.
“Jesse says, ‘Look, we think we’re a good place for young players. We see athleticism in you—courage,’” Armas told SI.com. “He was a confident kid. Showed up and worked hard, showed a real ability to read the game well and just put out fires. He had a top speed that was impressive. And he had the mind and feet of a six.
“He decided to choose us, thankfully. He got thrown into the fire,” Armas continued. “Introducing the style of play to him, playing fast, this was a culture shock for a lot of players. You sink or swim. He swam. He was great. Jesse worked with him.”
Long needed games at center back, so was willing to sign a USL contract because the club so frequently included Red Bulls II players in first-team training.
“The culture at Red Bull is insane. It’s integrated like crazy, more so than anywhere else,” he said.
The USL team was a juggernaut, rolling through the regular season before thrashing Swope Park Rangers, 5-1, in the final. Long was the league’s defender of the year, and the Red Bulls II roster included several players who made the jump to MLS, including Tyler Adams and Derrick Etienne.
Only FC Dallas partisans would dispute the Red Bulls’ position as American soccer’s premier talent identifier and incubator. Whether it’s turning a journeyman like Bradley Wright-Phillips into an icon, Adams into a Champions League player, or Brian White into this season’s co-leading scorer, the club has become a launch pad. Long’s ascent is testament to the efficacy of the Red Bulls' approach.
“It helps that I was naturally pretty good at [center back], for sure, but the amount of time Jesse put into a USL player was crazy. The amount of time he spent with me doing video and talking to me after my games. He watched every Red Bulls II game. I think they still do, the coaches. That’s why they develop so much young talent. They watch every single USL game, which Seattle didn’t, by the way. That’s one of the reasons I wasn’t so keen on going back there,” Long said. “Jesse would call me in after every game, and we’d do personal video sessions. A lot of work went into it, and as a second-team guy, I was blown away. I was like, ‘This guy definitely cares about me. He definitely sees a future.’”
Armas, then an assistant and now in charge with Marsch off to a strong start at Red Bull Salzburg, confirmed that they still watch every RBII match. New York’s frenetic style also was ideal for a player still learning the mental side of the position.
“The club was perfect for him,” Armas said. “It’s aggressive, and it keeps him alert at all times. He almost got fast tracked and had to play catch-up. Playing center back on this team—what a demand. We’re not sitting deep in a block, shifting and stepping. It’s massive fires to put out, reading the game, combativeness, playing forward, playing fast. There’s a lot of details to how we play and I credit the philosophy of our club to his development.”
Finally, things began happening quickly for Long. In 2017, he started 33 MLS regular season and playoff games, and then in ’18, there was another breakthrough. He was the league’s defender of the year, the Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield and in September, he earned his first national team invitation of any kind, junior or senior. He roomed with Parker. And although Dave Sarachan left Long on the bench during a pair of friendlies, the interim manager gave him his USA debut the following month against Peru.
Parker jokingly said Long’s ego was out of control upon his return to the Red Bulls form U.S. duty.
“He comes back and starts criticizing everyone,” Parker deadpanned.
Which means, of course, that Long did anything but, instead handling it with his disarming California cool. Long is funny, candid, somewhat acerbic, and confident—without appearing to stray toward arrogance. He draws attention to himself only with his play and an inexplicable haircut.
“He’s a real guy,” Armas said.
Long believed in himself even when others didn’t, and he’s chased his goals with the sort of disciplined relentlessness that earns respect rather than antipathy.
He needs those skills now more than ever. Because on the heels of his sterling Gold Cup, and with his professional bona fides cemented, European clubs came calling. Long said he is “very grateful” to the Red Bulls. They signed him to an extension in January that’ll pay him $800,000 this season and is guaranteed through 2021. They gave him the chance, the coaching and the platform he needed. But there’s little point to that platform unless you use it. And now Long wants to leave. He’s moved once for the chance to take his late-blooming career to the next level. And like Dempsey, he believes it’s time to do so again. Long turns 27 next month. There are only so many contracts left for a player that age. The window to move abroad won’t stay open forever.
In January 2016, the Red Bulls sent 20-year-old center back Matt Miazga to Chelsea for $3.5 million. Adams, regarded by many as a future USA linchpin, made an in-house move to RB Leipzig for $3 million. That’s the same amount that West Ham United offered the Red Bulls in July for Long. It was rejected. An unidentified French club upped the ante to $4 million. That would tie the record for a transfer fee paid for an MLS defender. The Red Bulls weren't interested.
Long acknowledged his frustration. Meanwhile, the club was caught between competing missions. Yes, the Red Bulls have a proven knack for developing players and identifying talent and, yes, participating in the transfer market should be a vital component of every MLS team’s mission. But there’s only so much pride New York fans can take in knowing their club is where careers are born but not always where they blossom. From Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley to Tim Ream, Adams and Miazga, New York is known more for transfers than for titles.
The club is starved for the latter (Supporters' Shields are nice, but it’s not a championship of anything), and you can’t hang a transfer fee from the rafters. Selling a top player requires the development or acquisition of a replacement. That’s not always a given, even at Red Bull. Doing so in short order, with the playoffs approaching, represents an especially tough sell for a club with multiple constituencies. There’s the player and the market. But there’s also the fans, sponsors and community who have been through more on-field heartbreak than any others in MLS.
“He can play in almost any league in the world. But what we need is another club out there to see his value and come in strong with an offer that makes sense to our club. … We’re not going to just give away our best players,” Armas said
“It’s always going to be what’s best for the club with the player in mind. We don’t want to hold anyone back. We never have,” Armas continued, before rattling off the names of former Red Bulls. “They want a starting center back. One of our best players, starting for the national team, and he’s growing still. [The offer] has got to match that. At the same time, no matter what the offer is, of course there’s frustration if it doesn’t work out. I understand that.”
Armas said his relationship with Long remains good. In the end, it’s not up to the manager anyway. Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett and Red Bull Global executives Oliver Mintzlaff and Paul Mitchell will have the final say. Either way, it’s out of Long’s hands. His ability to shape his career has been limited, and the fate of his team and his potential appeal during the January transfer window will be impacted by his performance this fall.
Parker joked that if the Red Bulls finally win MLS Cup, they’ll all go to Europe.
“He had a tough time early on, when this came and went,” Armas admitted. “Like I said, he’s a real guy. He’s not going to have those dreams and have a chance to go and then just show up like nothing’s going on. Yeah, it bothered him. But he wasn’t a distraction to the team at all. He shows up every day as a pro. He endured a lot emotionally, but it didn’t stop his commitment to the team.”
Long will get another chance in the shop window over the next couple weeks with the USA. Berhalter’s style is more balanced and possession-based than New York's, but Long’s midfield pedigree is important to a manager who wants players who can see and pass through lines. Plus, there’s a chance at another crack at Mexico following defeat in the Gold Cup final.
“We could’ve and should’ve won that game, in my opinion,” Long said, still sore over his silver medal. “It’s almost like a new rivalry beginning with these new generations. There’s not enough bad blood at this time between some of the players like Tyler Adams, Weston [McKennie], Christian Pulisic, and the young Mexican guys. Over 10 years, there’s going to be a lot of crazy games and there’s going to be some serious bad blood. Seeing Jozy [Altidore] and Michael [Bradley] getting psyched for that game was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
Then comes the MLS Cup playoffs, perhaps more Red Bull heartbreak, and then the transfer dance will begin again. Considering his past, it might seem like Long is already playing with house money. But he’s always felt capable. So the next big step is an integral and inevitable part of his journey.
“I understand where they’re coming from. … [But] I’ve got to make moves and I need to make them as soon as possible,” he said. “I want to take every opportunity I can take. I’m riding a wave right now and I want to see where it goes.”
Added Parker: “He’ll have more opportunities. He’s good enough, and hopefully it happens again this winter. It would suck to lose Aaron, and it would be kind of good to lose Aaron.”
It sounds like he’s channeling Ben Affleck’s Chuckie in Good Will Hunting when he said, “Because you’d be losing a bad guy in the locker room!”
More banter, amid what’s becoming serious business.
“I want to see Aaron succeed,” Parker said. “Whether that’s in New York, in Europe, whatever his desires really are.”