Photo by Meg Williams/Portland Thorns
By CAITLIN MURRAY
Allie Long was just 22 years old when she attended her first U.S. Women’s National Team camp back in 2010. A highly-regarded youth national team prospect, Long couldn’t have been blamed if she went into that first camp feeling like it might be the first of many.
At least that was until suffering an MCL injury in her first training session — an injury that would set off a four-year-long wait for another opportunity to wear the USWNT colors.
It took longer than she could have imagined in 2010, but Long is back in the national team picture after a breakout 2014 season with the Portland Thorns.
“Those four years it took me to come back and get my first cap were some of the hardest times because I was just training and not sure what I was training for,” Long told SBI. “I just wanted to get better and be the best player I could possibly be. Sometimes I’d go out to training and it would be freezing outside and I’d question myself.”
“But I was just trying to get better for the opportunity. I’ve always been hopeful.”
Hopeful, indeed, but the odds certainly weren’t in her favor. Having just turned 27 last week, Long is on the higher end of the age spectrum to be in the early stages of her national team career. If she couldn’t crack the USWNT this year, it was a virtual guarantee she would never have the chance to play in a World Cup.
“I never thought the ship had sailed, but I knew that this season was so critical,” Long said. “I knew this season is before the World Cup, it’s before the Olympics – this season was huge and I needed to perform.”
And perform, she has. Sharing the field with the likes of stars Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair could’ve pushed Long into the background. Instead, she’s stepped up as a leader. With nine goals and three assists, her measurable impact for the Thorns is more than either Morgan or Sinclair this year.
There’s a lot to credit for her breakthrough in 2014. New Thorns coach Paul Riley moved her from holding midfield to a traditional No. 10 role, where she can roam free within the attack-focused Thorns offense. Riley has also implemented a strict training regime in his first year with the club.
The difference may be what Long did on her own. In preparation for 2014, she played men’s indoor soccer with her boyfriend’s team and various men’s futsal clubs around the New York City area, playing between five and nine games every week. It forced her to read the game and react more quickly, she said.
The work she’s put in has turned into impressive output with the Thorns. The club will look to defend their National Women’s Soccer League title with a semifinal in Kansas City on Saturday – a rematch of last year’s semifinal where Long scored the crucial game-winner in extra time.
“The Portland Thorns, I need them to really showcase what I have,” Long said. “I think that’s how the system should work – that if you perform well for your club, your national team should watch.”
Coach Jill Ellis has certainly been watching. Since Ellis took over the USWNT in May, Long has had consistent call-ups to the most competitive women’s team in the world. With the World Cup less than a year away, Long is the closest she’s ever been to her dream, thanks in no small part to the Thorns.
Long is the exception, not the rule. Ellis told SBI she is committed to scouting the NWSL, where Long has showcased her abilities so well, but Ellis also made it clear she is confident in the player pool she has now.
“If a player is performing, then you want to assess them in this environment,” Ellis told SBI in June. “And that’s the difference. A player can be playing well, but then you bring them into here and it is another level.”
The fact that coach Pia Sundhage never called Long in again after that one day in 2010 doesn’t seem to matter so much now. The fact Coach Tom Sermanni didn’t include Long among the 12 players he gave first caps to doesn’t matter. Ellis will be the coach to decide the 2015 World Cup roster and, fortunately for Long, she has turned a keen eye toward possession-style soccer, which suits Long perfectly.
“I want to leave a game not giving the ball away at all,” she said with a laugh. “Obviously it happens, but that’s my goal.”
Long, who started in the USWNT’s last two friendlies, is on the roster for a sold-out friendly against Switzerland on Wednesday in North Carolina. Unlike with the Thorns, Ellis has Long filling a defensive mid role and, if she plays Wednesday, it will be her fourth cap with the national team.
“I like Allie’s qualities,” Ellis said. “Allie is clean. She’s a player who values keeping the ball, her movement off the ball is good and I think she fits in well with the types of players that we’re interested in. I was impressed with Allie once she came in with us. She’s a player with a skill and an IQ that runs well within this environment, so I’m really excited to see where Allie can go.”
Long is excited, too. She knows a spot on the USWNT is never a sure thing, but her goal is World Cup qualifiers in October and the World Cup next summer. It is an opportunity that has been four years in the making – but now lies just around the corner.
“I’m not taking it for granted,” she said. “I don’t think it’s that far away. I think it’ll come faster than I think. It’s in close enough grasp.”