Saturday, June 25, 2022

USMNT: Aaron Long could be the defender Gregg Berhalter needs to fill injured Miles Robinson’s shoes

In their first competitive match since a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica to end World Cup qualifying, the United States men’s national team were able to pull out a 3-0 victory over Morocco in a friendly. Only six players who started that loss also started in the victory over Morocco. One of the biggest differences in the match was the inclusion of Aaron Long who made his first start since a 2-1 win at Northern Ireland on March 28, 2021, though he had several substitute appearances during World Cup qualifying.

Ironically, Long lost his spot after an Achilles injury forced him off the field, and on Wednesday made his return thanks to Miles Robinson being out for the long haul with his own Achilles injury. Robinson’s spot in the defense is wide open and Long is battling to possibly become the starting center-back at the World Cup in Qatar. Wednesday’s formation was nominally a back four but with Antonee Robinson bombing forward from the left fullback position, Long was thrown right into the fire against Morocco’s right wing-back, Paris Saint-Germain star, Achraf Hakimi. Leaving Long on an island shows either that manager Gregg Berhalter has a tremendous amount of trust in Long or that he wanted to test his possible long term starting center-back ahead of World Cup play, or both.

And, even if Long doesn’t start in Qatar, it’s possible to envision a scenario where he has to enter on short notice and perform at the highest level, so throwing him straight into the fire here, in a friendly, makes sense. Only five minutes into the match Long had to make a clearance to snuff out a dangerous Morocco attack. He succeeded, and the early action was a hint of what was to come for the New York Red Bull defender.

Long might have been the new face in the starting lineup between Walker Zimmerman at center-bacl to his right, and Robinson to his left, but after halftime he was the grizzled veteran back there. After the USMNT’s strong first half, his partner Zimmerman was subbed out of the match to get Cameron Carter-Vickers match time and Joe Scally was also subbed in for Robinson. The shape stayed but Long was surrounded by new faces. It almost led to a goal as minutes after the restart there was a communication error between Long and Carter-Vickers but luckily Morroco wasn’t able to capitalize on it.

When it was all said and done, Long made a team-high six clearances, blocked a shot, and also got an interception on a strong day. He didn’t attempt a tackle, but often that’s a mark of good positioning despite the changing cast around him. If a defender is in the right position, not only do they make defending look easy but there’s no need to slide in for a tackle. 

He was effective in attack too. While Zimmerman had the best pass by a defender on the night, it was his long ball that set up Christian Pulisic’s assist to Brenden Aaronson for the opener, Long’s 1-2 passing with Matt Turner and Tyler Adams were able to free up space so that Brenden Aaronson and Haji Wright could create a chance in the attacking third. It’s a similar system to the one Long is in weekly for New York Red Bulls, and his proficiency on the ball gives Berhalter more tools in his toolbox.

Comfort in a back three or four and the experience to be confident in his one on one defending skills may not see Long automatically start World Cup games but it will ensure that he’s in the conversation. He did enough in this match to get a chance to build on things against Uruguay, especially since he did the simple things well. 

Not being dispossessed means that Turner wasn’t put at risk by anything that Long did, and helped ensure that the USMNT keeper was in strong positions to make eight saves on the night. Being able to perform in varied situations is a skill that doesn’t show on a stat sheet but Long put it on display Wednesday night in Cincinnati. If he keeps performing like this, it’s possible the USMNT won’t miss Robinson at all.

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