Aaron Long has been named USL's 2016 Defender of the Year, an award that recognizes his role as the back-line leader for a team that didn't just win USL Cup, but also won the league's regular-season title.
New York Red Bulls II set regular-season records in USL for points (69) and goals scored (61), but also conceded the fewest league goals (21) and shutout opponents in 16 of 30 regular-season games. The defense was a big part of NYRB II's success, and Long was a big part of the II team's defense.
He landed at NYRB II at the beginning of this season, signing a USL contract and appearing to fill the sort of role Mike da Fonte had served for the previous year's squad: a young but experienced pro who would stabilize the back line while head coach John Wolyniec rotated fringe first-teamers and upcoming prospects around him. But over the course of the season, it became clear that Long was outshining teammates like Zach Carroll (a 2016 SuperDraft pick for RBNY) or Tim Schmoll (a first-year pro who had summered with NYRB U-23s in 2015).
Long's obvious benefit to NYRB II when he signed was his versatility, but the 24-year-old told uslsoccer.com that he had profited from being allowed to focus on one position with the II team:
Before I was bouncing around at center mid, right back, left back, center back.This year’s been my first primarily at center back, or just in any one position for a full year, and I think that’s helped me grow and learn the position a lot better.
By the end of the season, Long had been promoted to RBNY's first-team squad. He was on the bench for the team's first game of the MLS playoffs and it can be assumed he will compete for a first-team contract in the off-season. In addition to 22 regular-season appearances for NYRB II plus three starts in the USL playoffs, Long played three games for RBNY in this year's CONCACAF Champions League group stage.
It seems fair to say Long has outperformed the Red Bulls' expectations. This year's 24-year-old center back with a shot at first-team minutes in CCL and as back-up to the senior defenders was supposed to be Canada international Karl Ouimette. Instead, it is Aaron Long. Not bad for a player who wasn't even on the first-team roster at the start of the season.
The 2016 USL Defender of the Year will now hope to part of the RBNY's 2017 MLS squad.