It’s hard to describe why there’s angst around Aaron Long. Does the United States men’s national team have better center backs? Yes. Has he taken the spot of more deserving players? Yeah, but that’s more up for debate. If you’re basing personnel decisions on trust with USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, Long may be at the front of the line. If not for rupturing his Achilles tendon in May 2021, Long’s rise from Major League Soccer starter to national-team regular would’ve 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 minutes played for the national team under Berhalter. There was a pandemic that scattered American talent all over the globe, but Long was already a trusted body by Berhalter long before crunch time of picking a 26-man roster to bring to Qatar was announced. If Long was in form, he was a deceivingly easy choice to be selected for the World Cup.
Long has never played professional soccer 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 squads in Portland and Seattle. His presence has never been seen as big and menacing, yet he’s never made a ton of mistakes. It’s fair to say we’ve never seen Long face the level of competition he’ll tussle with while in Qatar. Berhalter has put plenty of stock into Long. If you think he’s not going to significantly contribute at the World Cup, you’re mistaken. It’s not a matter if he plays, it’s how much.
Fellow MLSer Walker Zimmerman has locked down one of the two starting spots for the USMNT in Qatar. I don’t see a way that doesn’t happen. As for the other central defensive spot, the options for Berhalter are Long, Tim Ream, and Cameron Carter-Vickers. Flip a three-sided coin to determine the other choice, with Carter-Vickers likely having the longest odds of the three. Long has the inside track, having consistently played for the Yanks in 2022, while Ream hasn’t had many recent call-ups. The opportunities Ream has had over the last 18 months haven’t gone well.
The late push to start Ream over long comes down to a few factors. First and foremost is experience against similar competition. Ream captains Fulham and was huge in their efforts to be promoted to the Premier League last year. Ream is 35, but has years against the United Kingdom’s top talent. That’s vital when England and Wales are also in Group B. The likely starter for the USMNT at left back is Antonee Robinson, who plays at Fulham. Why wouldn’t Berhalter take advantage of that familiarity?
The big reason to start Long comes from Berhalter’s system. An underrated part of sports is how well every player knows a coach’s system. Long has been a constant for the USMNT. He’s been in more tough situations for the Americans than almost any other defender and has a large advantage over Ream in that capacity. With barely more than a week of time together training before facing Wales on Monday, any acclimation to the way Berhalter likes to prepare his team would take no time for Long. Despite an experience edge for Ream, the specificity of playing at the highest level has to be questioned. My call would be starting Ream anyway, but Long will get his shot to prove he’s not just a propped-up MLS project.