In the fall of 2017, the United States mens national team were eliminated from World Cup qualification by Trinidad & Tobago after a poor touch from a center back led to an own goal and the lack of a true defensive midfielder allowed a free blast on goal from distance. During that autumn, two American players who would wind up doing much of the heavy lifting in filling those problem positions were wrapping up their first season as professional starters with the New York Red Bulls.
Tyler Adams and Aaron Long share different professional pathways both to and from the New York setup, but their presence five years later in the highest-stakes international camp since that surreal night in Couva are potent symbols of the club’s recent impact on the American game.
The precocious bottom-to-top academy product Adams became the poster child for not just New York’s development system, but the entire Red Bull footballing infrastructure when he transferred from MLS to RB Leipzig after the 2018 Supporters Shield season. Stepping into the shoes of departed captain Dax McCarty the same year the national team choked away qualification, the now 23-year-old Adams is an occasional captain at international level and a versatile presence who has increasingly become a defensive version of Landon Donovan — the figure who Bruce Arena famously said is your best player at so many positions that the debate becomes where to put him.
Even now three years since leaving the club, Adams is the omnipresent reference point for what Red Bull sporting chiefs and New York administrators hope to produce on a more regular basis after a recent overhaul of the youth system, proof that a kid from Wappinger Falls with the right tools and the right mindset can make it to the top quickly.
Long’s story is one of a different but no less notable strain of Red Bulls history. Joining the New York Red Bulls II reserve program in 2016 after a stalled career as a crafty midfielder in Portland and Seattle’s reserve setups, the Californian was converted into an athletic but elegant center back by Jesse Marsch and John Wolyniec with a high ceiling that Long has largely hit. After winning a USL title in his grad school year with the reserves and impressing in his belated top-flight rookie year of 2017, Long was a centerpiece of the 2018 Shield team and won the league defender of the year award. His unique positional development courtesy of New York’s innovative structure made him one of the rare technically-composed central defenders in the American system, allowing him to become a fixture in Gregg Berhalter’s ball circulation-focused national team program. But unlike the trajectory from the academy to Europe that Adams sailed on, Long became a symbol of New York’s haphazard attempts in recent years to claw back to the top of a league getting stronger every year.
The 29-year-old has been the subject of transfer scopes in recent years from clubs as big as Marseille and Liverpool, but has seen all such chances rejected by a rapidly-shuffling New York organization that values him as a rare piece of veteran continuity. Long was a near-unanimous choice to become the team’s captain this season, but his selection paradoxically comes in a season in which he hopes to redeem his career from consecutive mid-table finishes by the Red Bulls and an Achilles injury that wiped out almost his entire 2021.
So far the redemption tour has gone as well as anyone (except perhaps insufferably pedantic USMNT social media accounts) could have hoped. Long has started every match so far as New York sits 4th in the Eastern Conference table having only been scored against four times in the season’s opening month. Long pitched in a goal of his own in a 4-1 win over Toronto and played a key role in the pinball that led to Tom Barlow’s tally against Columbus this past Sunday.
But in what is the last year of Long’s contract in New York, the club is in the process of and has perhaps already eliminated much of the informal infrastructure that allowed a player like Long to reclaim his career over the last five years. The Red Bulls II program has gotten younger in recent years under the watch of recently-departed New York sporting chief Kevin Thelwell, focusing more on being a space for the promotion of elite teenage academy performers rather than its past tendency towards the refinement and rehabilitation of college products and pro misfits deep into their 20s. The club wants to produce prodigies like Tyler Adams as they become better and better at signing veteran pillars like Aaron Long rather than engineering them from scratch.
Whichever route the club’s personnel strategy takes in the years to come, the presence of both players in the squad that will enter the Azteca tonight is what should be seen as a successful culmination of New York’s commitment to internal development ever since 2015. Two players whose presence in the squad very feasibly could have saved the U.S. in 2017 and will hopefully guide them to qualification this week would never have come to the fore if it wasn’t for a brave approach to squad-building by the Red Bulls, one that has resulted in trophies for themselves in the process. Metro makes, indeed.