Aaron Long thought back to the aftermath of May 15, when he landed awkwardly during an aerial challenge in the New York Red Bulls’ game at Philadelphia.
Two days later, he had surgery to repair a torn right Achilles tendon and started a rehabilitation odyssey that would see him take two trips to Europe.
“I think the hardest part for me was probably the first week, just kind of wrapping my head around it, not really being injured before in that manner. And there’s a lot of what ifs and uncertainty of what’s to come,” he said Thursday.
Long played Thursday in the United States’ closed-door scrimmage against the second-tier Phoenix Rising as he tries to regain fitness in time for World Cup qualifying, which resumes Jan. 27 against El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio. Out-of-season Americans are training in Phoenix, and some will travel to Columbus and join Europe-based players for workouts starting Jan. 24.
A 29-year-old central defender, Long has made 29 appearances for the U.S. since 2018 and would be candidate to start if fully fit. He was Major League Soccer’s defender of the year in 2018, when he was picked for the league’s All-Star team.
“He’s obviously a big part of this group, on and off the field,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget said.
Long and forward Jordan Morris are both coming off major injuries. Morris started and played until the 78th minute in the 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina on Dec. 18, his first international appearance since tearing his left ACL on Feb. 20.
Both missed the first eight qualifiers. Following an operation and rehabilitation at the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Red Bulls sent Long to their sister team’s facility in Austria for two to three weeks, and later an additional two weeks.
“People are talking timelines,” he said. “It’s just a weird thing to try to plan, plan out something that I’m not familiar with. And obviously, there’s a lot of sadness in those moments.”
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter invited Long to train with the national team around the November qualifiers and again ahead of the Bosnia match. Long still hasn’t played in a competitive game, and the winter qualifiers may be too soon.
“I’m not sure he’s going to get there, but hopefully he’ll be close,” Berhalter said. “Hopefully in March we’re having different conversations.”
In Long’s absence, Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson and Chris Richards have emerged as leading central defenders.
“Gregg is very fortunate to have the group that he has, in terms of central defenders,” Long said. “There’s five, six guys now that are all putting up a good case,”
Notes: Lletget on the prospect of playing in cold weather in Columbus, Hamilton, Ontario, and St. Paul, Minnesota: “I think it’s a long time since I’ve had to do that, to be honest, so it should be interesting,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to make the opponent very uncomfortable. We have guys that are obviously playing in that weather and a little bit more used to it, so it could be advantageous. .. There’s only so much clothing you can put on.”
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