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Berhalter defends Aaron Long amid criticism of USMNT centerback’s push for a starting role

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The quest to replace injured centerback Miles Robinson has become one of the key tasks for the U.S. men’s national team as the FIFA World Cup looms on the horizon, and Aaron Long’s emergence as the front-runner to take on the role has been met with at least some consternation among a section of the USMNT fanbase that prefers other options.

As far as Gregg Berhalter is concerned, extreme criticism of Long as a USMNT option in central defense is misguided and he sees the New York Red Bulls standout coming along well as he works his way back from the torn Achilles he suffered just one year ago.

“That statement in itself, that’s insane,” Berhalter said when asked about critics who think Long is in bad form. “The guy was Defender the Year in MLS, is coming back from an Achilles injury and we’re purposely putting him in these games to keep pushing him to keep improving him.

“He’s got a great character, he’s got tremendous speed and he’s working his way back to this level, which is a different level,” Berhalter said. “I think he’s doing quite well and I’m pleased with his progress.”

Long started the USMNT’s first two June friendlies, a 3-0 win against Morocco and 0-0 draw with Uruguay, and faced a physical test from Moroccan striker Ayoub El Kaabi, who finished the recent Turkish League season as the second-leading goal scorer in the league. Long limited El Kaabi to two shots and zero successful dribbles, though Long did earn a yellow card for a foul on El Kaabi 40 yards from goal after El Kaabi turned and slipped past Long near midfield.

Long turned in a solid shift in 45 minutes of action against Uruguay, registering four recoveries. He had one nervy moment when he sent a pass to goalkeeper Sean Johnson that left Johnson under pressure and nearly led to a turnover, but aside from that moment Long performed well, particularly with the added responsibility of covering for Joe Scally, who struggled at left back in his first USMNT start.

Berhalter has taken looks at some other younger centerback options in Cameron Carter-VIckers and Erik Palmer-Brown, while Chris Richards remains a top candidate to start at centerback at the World Cup if he can stay healthy, but the quest to find an ideal centerback partner for Walker Zimmerman currently sits with Long in the lead, which suits Zimmerman just fine.

“Aaron is a guy that I’m always comfortable playing with, we have a great friendship and relationship on and off the field,” Zimmerman said after the draw with Uruguay. “There really is a chemistry there. And I think a lot of that comes down to the face we both organize and talk through a lot of situations. The communication is there from both sides, the competitiveness is there from both sides, and we want to make each other look good, we want to make each other perform at the best level that we can.

“So he’s a guy I trust, I’m really proud of the way that he’s come back from his injury, it’s not easy to return from an Achilles injury, let alone return to the international level,” Zimmerman said. “So he’s shown in the past two games, he can keep a zero, he can lead a back line, and I’m happy that he’s back.”

Long was a USMNT starter from the beginning of Berhalter’s tenure as national team coach, but he was sidelined by a torn Achilles suffered in May of 2021. That opened the door for Miles Robinson to step in and grab hold of a starting role. Robinson excelled at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup and carried that form into World Cup qualifying. He had established himself as Zimmerman’s preferred partner in central defense before suffering a torn Achilles in early May.

Berhalter could still wind up turning to someone like Richards, who is missing the USMNT’s June matches due to injury, and he has insisted that John Brooks could play his way back into the conversation, but for now the job starting alongside Zimmerman is Long’s to lose.

Comments

  1. Long is a good player with a lot of potential and the injury is a problem, I’m glad he’s back he’s got a lot of upside and he’s good. Kid needs to go abroad and I’m sure he will but you cannot start him over Vickers and Brooks. They never play their best players it’s ridiculous

    Reply
  2. This statement is exactly why many of us are frustrated with Gregg….
    “He’s got a great character, he’s got tremendous speed and he’s working his way back to this level, which is a different level,…”
    1) He’s working his way back to this level….That’s what he should be doing with his club, not the National Team. If he’s not back to his pre-injury form/fitness he shouldn’t be STARTING National Team Games.
    2) He’s got a great character….Character is not a substitute for skill or ability. The fact that this was the first part of Gregg’s argument is further proof that Gregg is talking out his a$$.
    3) He’s got tremendous speed….if he does it hasn’t been on display in any of the recent games I’ve watched him play. He may be a hair faster than Zimmerman, but he’s not a speedy player.
    Long is one of Gregg’s favorites, and therefore has been given special handling/treatment. Ask yourself how many Respected National Team’s / Managers call a player into a camp who hasn’t played a competitive game in nearly a year after a serious injury? How many Managers call this same player before calling up a couple others who have been playing regularly for clubs in better leagues?
    I just hope that after this year the USSF will finally come to their senses and hire a coach coach equal to the talent in our player pool.

    Reply
    • And this was an issue a lot of people had with his selections during qualifying.. With the covid thing and extra games he didn’t have to limit himself on the number of people he called in, yet with every window our opponents were calling up 1-3 more players than he was. Lost opportunities, for example – even if he didn’t plan to play Scally, CCV, EPB, Sargent, or even Brooks he could have called in a few more guys… Maybe they could have gotten an earlier look at his “system”
      Zimmerman was a roster replacement who ended up starting, Moore had to get called in to start, EPB ended up playing outside back. And he could have called in an extra striker who was borderline – who knows, it couldn’t have hurt anyone in any way.
      He refused to call Scally and now is evaluating him to back up Jedi with a small window… Yet he kept calling up Mackenzie who’d been terrible..
      Missed opportunities imho

      Reply
      • Here’s what I think about the job Berhalter did during qualifying. Would you trade our pool of players for that of any other country in CONCACAF? I wouldn’t. We have more good players than ahy other country in the region, yet we finished 3rd. That is under achievement IMO.

      • Gary: This isn’t paper and pencil injuries ravaged the side only perhaps equaled by El Tri.
        Weah: 3 matches injury 1 yellow cards
        Pulisic: 3 inj 1 Covid
        McKennie: 2 matches hotelgate 3 injury 1 yellow card
        Aaronson: 3 injury
        Reyna: 12 matches injury
        Dest: 6 matches injury
        Musah: 3 matches injury
        M.Robinson: 3 matches injury
        Richards: 4 matches injury
        Turner: 3 matches injury
        Steffen: 3 matches injury 3 Covid
        Morris: 8 matches injury
        Long: 11 matches injury
        ARob: 1 match couldn’t visit Panama
        That’s a lot of matches from the guys that make up the core of the team.

      • Bac, when players come in from Europe and don’t play, it can jeopardize their club standing. Pulisic and Horvath were both punished by their club coaches for attending/usage in the last qualifying window. MLS doesn’t even honor the FIFA windows so players miss one or two games. He called Ream in for a window and was planning to play him and when Ream backed out, he called in Zimmerman and then started him in all three games I think. There might be a little bit more that goes into player selections than you are considering. Maybe the coaches who brought in a lot of players weremt facing the same situations with the players they didnt play. You Scally would have been better off goimg to more camps and not playing. He ultimately lost his starting spot at Gladbach but it probably would have happened a lot sooner had he gone to all the qualifyimg windows, especially if he didnt play. That makes club team coaches mad.

      • @ Tele
        Every country has that same issue, and I’m not even really talking about first choice players, I’m talking about 4-5 guys that would have benefited from just being in camp. GB is a “systems” guy yet wouldn’t call some guys that he is now looking to be on the plane because they didn’t have enough time in his system.
        We’re young and talented with exciting potential but we’re razor thin on the margins…
        And other countries we’re calling in more players than him.
        There’s always been certain clubs more difficult than others, always has been always will be.
        A shortened, altered cycle, others took advantage of calling up more guys than he did

    • Every manager everywhere does this. Sorry, managers everywhere have guys that they trust that they call in. Managers recall guys that were regulars and then got injured. Managers prefer guys with “good character” who make the “group” stronger. If RB hadn’t blocked Longs move to West Ham 2 years ago no one would be saying anything. If you’re using so and so plays in a better league! Well that’s not Long’s fault that’s Red Bulls’ fault.

      Reply
      • “If RB hadn’t blocked Longs move to West Ham 2 years ago no one would be saying anything. ”

        How do you know Long would have succeeded at West Ham?

        Regardless, that situation is irrelevant.

        The current criticism of Long is that it feels as if as soon as he could get back on the field, he was back on the plane.

        Miles getting hurt just cemented Long’s place.

        Stylistically Miles was a better version of what Long was when he was good. That’s why I think they held a spot for Long, to be a like for like sub/backup for Miles. The injury just speeded things up.

        I think Long will get exposed if he’s the starter in a World Cup but we won’t know until the Wales game.

        You could say Long was an experienced starter, but that was for Berhalter.

        Long, first time around, was not an experienced international center back. He still isn’t as he missed the meat of qualifying. So what they are getting is a lesser, less proven version of Miles, who himself was unproven against serious international competition.

        Miles would have been fine in Qatar but I don’t think you can be anywhere near as confident about Long’s chances to shine.

        Berhalter is like those celebrities who keep marrying clones of their ex wives. That’s how married he can be to his “system”.

    • Not sure if that was irony, but where he’s at is the Premier League, where Fulham fans love him. Not saying Ream should be starting or even on the team, butthat’s a testament to the great new crop of players, not to GB being wrong.

      Reply
    • Who hasn’t been considered? Last 12 months
      Ream
      Brooks
      McKenzie
      Richards
      MRobinson
      Sands
      Pines
      EPB
      CCV
      Zimmerman
      Kessler
      Miazga
      Guys who camped but didn’t play: Che, Trusty, Henry.
      15 CBs have been in camp in the last year how many more guys do you want to try?

      Reply
    • He’s got far above average speed for a center back. Does anyone who’s criticizing Long bother to watch him in MLS, not just in two NT games where he’s still adjusting (and has played more than respectably anyway )? He’s absolutely tearing it up this year.

      Reply
      • Very few commentators here watch MLS at least outside their local team. Look at the comments on the articles with MLS in the titles. There aren’t any comments.

      • Paolo, I don’t watch him in MLS but I did watch the game against Uruguay and IMO he was significantly better than EPB.

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