It’s hard to describe why there is anxiety around Aaron Long. Does the US Men’s National Team have a better center back? Yes. Has he taken the place of deserving players? Yes, but there is more to discuss. If you’re basing personnel decisions on trust with USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, Long might be at the forefront. Had he not ruptured his Achilles tendon in May 2021, Long’s rise from Champions League starter to international would have been more linear.
When Long returned from injury in February, he played a few games before being called up to the national team for the final window of World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica. People forget that before his injury, Long was the leader in playing minutes for the national team under Berhalter. It was a pandemic that spread American talent around the world, but Long was already a Berhalter stalwart long before it was time to pick the 26-man roster to come to Qatar was announced. If Long was fit, he was a deceptively easy choice for World Cup selection.
Long has never played professional football outside of America. His only first-team appearances for MLS clubs have come since 2017 for the New York Red Bulls after failed attempts to break into the squad in Portland and Seattle. His presence has never been considered large and intimidating, yet he has never made a ton of mistakes. It’s fair to say we’ve never seen Long face the kind of competition he’ll be up against while in Qatar. Berhalter has put a lot of stock in Long. If you think he is not going to contribute much at the World Cup, you are wrong. It’s not a question of whether he plays, it’s how much.
Fellow MLSer Walker Zimmerman has locked down one of two starting spots for the USMNT in Qatar. I don’t see a way that doesn’t happen. As for the other centre-back position, options include Berhalter Long, Tim Ream and Cameron Carter-Vickers. Flip a three-sided coin to determine the other option, with Carter-Vickers probably having the longest odds of the three. Long has the inside track, having played consistently for the Yanks in 2022, while Ream hasn’t gotten many recent call-ups. The opportunities Ream has had over the last 18 months have not gone well.
The late push to restart Ream for a long time comes down to a few factors. First and foremost, the experience is against comparable competition. Ream is Fulham’s captain and was huge in their push for promotion to the Premier League last year. Ream is 35, but has years against Britain’s top talent. That’s important when England and Wales are also in Group B. The USMNT’s likely starter at left back is Antonee Robinson, who plays for Fulham. Why wouldn’t Berhalter take advantage of that familiarity?
The big reason for starting Long comes from Berhalter’s system. An underrated part of sports is how well every player knows a coach’s system. Long a staple for the USMNT. He has been in tougher situations for the Americans than almost any other defenseman and has a huge advantage over Ream in that regard. With barely more than a week together before practice face Wales on Monday, everyone adjusting to how Berhalter wants to prepare his team would take no time at all for Long. Despite the experience advantage for Ream, the uniqueness of playing at the highest level has to be questioned. My call would still be to start Ream, but Long will get a chance to prove he’s not just a short MLS project.