For Aaron Long, the low point of his career came a couple months into the 2014 season. He was 21, a year removed from an All-Big West First-Team career as a central midfielder at the University of California Riverside and recently drafted in the second round by the Portland Timbers. The MLS club sent him down the coast on loan to Sacramento Republic. Preki, the USL side's coach, saw talent but not a place for Long on his team and wanted the Timbers to find another spot for the young player.
Long returned to Portland, where then-head coach Caleb Porter brought him in for a difficult, brutal and blunt talk. "We sent you to a USL team and they are telling me you're not right," Long remembers Porter telling him. "How is that possible? How are you going to be a first-team guy in MLS? How are you trying to make your name and make our roster and you can't be a mainstay on a USL team?" A couple months later, Portland cut the prospect.
Long relates this story while sitting in a coffee shop in Jersey City on a late October afternoon. The previous evening, his New York Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield while breaking MLS' record for points in a season and conceding less than a goal a game. Long, now a center-back, played in all 34 matches, starting 31, and on Wednesday was named the league's Defender of the Year. In October, he made his U.S. national team debut, an excellent 90-minute performance in a 1-1 draw with Peru.
Physically and mentally, he's a long way from that down day in Portland.
Which isn't to say it was an easy, or smooth, path. After a short stint and zero appearances with the Seattle Sounders and a 2015 season with the Sounders 2, Long found himself on trial with the Red Bulls before the 2016 season. He showed well, but not well enough to earn a spot in the first team. Long had a decision to make: spend another year in USL or leave New York and try his luck at another trial he had set. Then-Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch wanted Long to stay, saying he saw great potential in Long's rawness at center-back. He asked the defender to give him and his staff a year to help him improve his game. In short, Marsch asked Long to trust him.
"I didn't, to be honest," Long says. "But I talked to friends, family, people that I trust, older players that I knew. They knew Jesse and said to give him a chance. He's a great coach, an emerging coach. If he says he sees things in you, he does. He's not going to lie. At the time, I didn't really trust him but I trusted my people telling me to trust him."
Long took a leap. He stayed, living in a team house near the facility with other members of Red Bulls II. He played with the USL squad but trained with the first team and had video sessions with Marsch and his staff. "It's one big team," Long says. "Everyone just kind of floats up and down between the lines. It's so integrated."
He improved as a defender, marrying the technical skills of a central midfielder with a growing understanding of positional defending and situational awareness. He won the USL's Defender of the Year award and a league championship, then moved to the first team before the start of the 2017 season and started 30 games.
This year, it's been more of the same, only better. When he looked around the field, he saw guys he knew from the second team, players like Tyler Adams, Derrick Etienne, Alex Muyl, Sean Davis and Florian Valot.
"We were taking pictures in the locker room last night," Long says. "It was like eight Red Bull II guys that won a championship together. There are a lot of memories that go back, and even though I've only been here for two, three years, it feels like forever." Afterward, they met up at a bar in Manhattan, then hit a club. "We partied hard, and let loose," he says. "Had to do it."
Long is settling into the life of a professional now, out of the team house and into his own apartment in Jersey City (following a stint in Clifton, New Jersey, where he stayed in Matt Miazga's parents' guesthouse, happy to pay them rent). Jersey City suits him; it's a short PATH ride from the hectic chaos of New York City that he loves but calmer and more relaxed, a bit removed.
On a typical off day, he'd chill, doing "a whole lot of nothing," he says. Last year, he and Sacha Kljestan might go play golf -- Long, a duffer trying to break 100; Kljestan shooting in the mid-80s -- but the former Red Bulls captain is with Orlando City now and Long hasn't found a new partner. He'd hop online to play Fortnite with his teammates, maybe watch a cooking show with his girlfriend for inspiration in the kitchen. After we finish talking, he's off to a Jamaican food truck to grab lunch and bring something to Daniel Royer, who lives in the neighborhood. They might watch some TV, but won't play video games, the Austrian being of the opinion that the Fortnite obsession is very childish.
Plus, there are the playoffs to think about, an Eastern Conference semifinal against the Columbus Crew in which Long will be tasked with shutting down Federico Higuain and Gyasi Zardes. While he misses the center of the field, being a center mid getting on the ball and making the game pretty, he's starting to take pride in winning tackles, winning duels and winning clearances. "Which is crazy to say," Long says, laughing.
This might not be where he pictured himself, but it's where he is, and that's just fine.
"You see the success and it's like, 'You had to have done something different,'" he says, ready for Jamaican food. "But I don't think I did. I just played my game."