By Peter Schwartz
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Aaron Long had never really had any experience as a defender.READ MORE: Paterson Mother Charged With Murder In 7-Year-Old's Death
In fact, through most of his soccer career, the Oak Hills, California native was primarily a midfielder. But when he joined the Red Bulls as a trialist for the 2016 preseason Long was a presented with a position change by head coach Jesse Marsch, who decided to use him as a center back.
“Jesse saw me as a defender and told me to trust him,” Long told WFAN.com.
Long impressed the organization to the point where they signed him to a contract with New York Red Bulls II of the USL and the rest, as they say, is history.
Long would pick up USL Defender of the Year honors as he helped NYRB II allow the fewest goals during the regular season and then led them to the league championship.
Long made 22 regular season appearances for NYRB II and scored a pair of goals, but made a name for himself with his vision and ability to shut down opponents’ scoring chances. In one season, Long not only switched positions, but did it flawlessly. Used to getting the ball in the middle and having the defenders there behind him if there was trouble, Long made a seamless transition to being the last line of defense.
“In the midfield you could maybe lose a ball or two and you have people behind you to clean it up,” Long said. “But as a defender, if you lose the ball they’re coming right at the goal, so I think that was one of the things that I had to really clean up in my game and make no mistakes like that.”
Long’s play earned him time with the first team as he was loaned to the Red Bulls on Sept. 16 and started three CONCACAF Champions League games. Then on Wednesday, Long was signed to an MLS contract with the Red Bulls on a transfer from NYRB II.
He has become the latest player to come up through the system.
“Aaron has showed a lot of development over the last year and has earned this opportunity,” Marsch said. “This is also a very proud moment for the club, as we successfully transition another player from our USL team to a first-team contract.”READ MORE: 3 Teens Charged In Manhattan Subway Attacks, Police Release Video Of New Suspect Believed To Be Group's Lookout
The 24-year-old Long made 71 collegiate appearances as a four-year starter for UC Riverside from 2010-13. While in school, he also played two seasons for FC Tucson in the USL Premier Development League before he was selected by the Portland Timbers 36th overall in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
From there, it was on to the Sacramento Republic, Orange County Blues, Seattle Sounders FC 2, NYRB II and now he has a chance to help the Red Bulls in their quest for MLS Cup. Long has finally found a home in New Jersey.
“Last year was a great year for me and the club and I’m happy to be a part of the first team now,” Long said. “It has been a long road for me. I’ve played for a lot of clubs. I’m so happy to be here.”
With the ink on his deal not even dry, Long was in the starting lineup for Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw with Vancouver at Red Bull Arena in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. Long said he was right at home on the pitch in Harrison.
“I felt pretty comfortable to be honest,” he said. “My coaches had a lot of belief in me and so did my teammates, so it wasn’t too nerve-racking even though there were a lot of emotions. We’re happy to get a game under our belt as a team. We didn’t get the three points but we’re still in a good position going to Vancouver to compete for the next game.”
That next game will be on March 2 at BC Place as Long and the Red Bulls will look to move on in the CCL before starting the MLS regular season on March 5 in Atlanta.
Coming off of back-to-back Eastern Conference regular season titles, the Red Bulls have some unfinished business when it comes to the playoffs. In Long, they have a player who experienced a long playoff run last season with NYRB II and seems to be fitting in quite well with the first team.
“I’m very excited,” Long said of his new opportunity in MLS. “My expectation is just to contribute as much as I can. Hopefully I’ll have a great year with the team and hopefully hold the trophy at the end. That’s the main goal.”
Hoisting MLS Cup may be the ultimate goal for Long and the Red Bulls, but the midfielder-turned-stellar defender has reached his initial goal of being able to lay down roots in an organization while climbing that final step of the ladder to one of the best leagues in the world.
The long and winding road has taken him to a huge opportunity with one of the best teams around.MORE NEWS: Pro-Palestine Protesters Block Traffic On Gowanus Expressway
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow Aaron Long @A_LoLo12 and @NewYorkRedBulls