In an outcome that was fairly predictable to anybody who had been following the story, Aaron Long officially left the New York Red Bulls on Tuesday to sign a free agent deal with Los Angeles FC. Once A Metro chief editor Ben Cork is offering up a couple or three things to think about as he examines Long’s legacy in New York and what his departure means for the club moving forward.
Minutes to replace at center back
Let’s make like an overwrought student film and cut to the cold practical reality first: Aaron Long’s departure means the Red Bulls will have to replace his minutes at center back. Obviously the captain last year, Long has spent the last six years as one of the first names on the team sheet in Harrison. Though he missed a handful of games last year and was substituted at an unusual rate for a center back as he recovered from major injury and prepared for a World Cup run, the 30-year-old was not only a key starter, but also one of the squad’s few experienced veterans.
But the Red Bulls do have a unique window into what the immediate future could provide, given that the club has already seen what remaining center back pairing Andres Reyes and Sean Nealis are capable of when the duo covered for Long after his season-ending Achilles injury in 2021. The pair combined with Tom Edwards and Andrew Gutman to provide reliable defending as the club scraped to a playoff spot, and should be more than capable of carrying on their form from that season with two more years of experience sprinkled on top.
But they will need help both on the depth chart and likely on the field. Despite beginning his New York tenure deploying a 4-4-2 diamond, Gerhard Struber appears to have settled on a three-center back defensive line over the following season-and-a-half, stretching what’s left in the squad. Wingback Dylan Nealis frequently understudied in the wide center back roles in 2022 with mixed results, while last year’s first round SuperDraft pick Matthew Nocita impressed in limited USL minutes with the reserves but is likely still some distance from senior pro level. Cameroonian backup Hassan Ndam returned to the New York fold in 2022 after almost four years in the wilderness and gained some cameos with the first team in the home stretch, but (save for a Long-esque late bloom) is not the profile of player needed to raise or even maintain the team’s level. Another body will likely be needed — could it be the latest position in the New York lineup filled by a Brazilian?
A club icon departs
Particularly towards the end of his tenure in New York as the club slipped down the table while injuries and internationals curtailed his presence, it became easy to lose sight of just how important of a player Long has been to the Red Bulls on both a technical and spiritual level.
Other than Tyler Adams, there is no greater poster boy for the peak of the club’s powers during the Jesse Marsch era than Long, the former college midfielder who was prepared to leave soccer and take more construction work when Marsch offered him a mid-career chance to convert to defense in 2016. As if it wasn’t enough that Marsch’s Red Bulls operation were winning Supporters Shields with re-shuffled squads and academy kids, they were taking other teams’ draft busts and turning them into all-stars and national team regulars.
The position switch proved to be a masterstroke, with Long becoming a near-world class central defender practically overnight, leading Red Bulls II to a USL title in 2016 before becoming a first team fixture the following year and winning league defender of the year the next. Providing a rare mobility and panache on the ball at center back that proved crucial to New York’s successes of the last half decade, the Californian was the subject of multiple glamorous European bids at his peak, with Olympique Marseille, West Ham United, and even Liverpool reported to have been admirers.
But now at an advanced age in the dog years of a pro soccer career, any overseas interest was likely to be more short-term in nature, and Long has chosen to close out his late-blooming career with job security in his hometown. It’s hard to fault Long for his decision, especially with what he’s already given to New York over seven seasons.
Where does this leave the project?
The tables have turned on the “captain’s curse” joke bandied about in Red Bulls discourse for the last decade. It used to refer to the captains themselves being the cursed martyrs of Red Bull’s squad-churning philosophy, destined to be traded during their wedding when the opportunity struck. But now, for the second year in a row, it appears to be the captains themselves jumping ship.
With Major League Soccer’s free agency rules limiting the salaries that rival league clubs can offer, Long now joins Sean Davis as the second consecutive Red Bulls captain to take an implied pay cut to leave the club. Soccer is a business and mutual departures will happen sometimes based on what’s best for both parties — good players leave good teams all the time.
But two key players — two captains — voluntarily leaving in consecutive years does not paint a convincing picture of what’s being accomplished in New York after what’s now been several seasons of transition. Gerhard Struber has built much of his reputation and the team’s current identity on buy-in and the supposedly magnetic energy of his system. Head of sport Jochen Schneider staked out a desire to keep the squad intact and add experience in his postseason press statements. In these contexts, the team’s main veteran leaders proving unwilling to stick around and help the team reach the supposed horizon going into Struber’s third full season at the helm is discouraging to say the least.