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Aaron Long latest top MLS Free Agent to pick LAFC

SoCal native took winding path to black-and-gold.

Soccer: FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022-Features Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting a shaved head when introduced to the media for the first time as an LAFC player, instead of his trademark mullet/mohawk style, defender Aaron Long appeared ready for a new phase in his career.

The Mojave Desert native, “coming home” in a sense, signed with LAFC as a free agent — arguably the most coveted MLS Free Agent this offseason — and will immediately be among the players expected to play a key role for the black-and-gold in 2023.

“I think for me, it’s a special day,” Long told reporters when being introduced alongside fellow newcomers Stipe Buik, Denil Maldonado and Eldin Jakupović. “Obviously to come back to LA and in this market, to play in front of my family and friends is extremely special and a dream come true. To join an organization with big aspirations like this, big goals and a team that just won the Cup last year and multiple trophies, it’s amazing, and I can’t wait to just contribute to the team in any way I can excited to be here. The last couple days and training has been great. The welcoming that we all have received has been amazing. So just really grateful and happy to be here.”

Long’s professional journey is unusual for a player of his stature. Growing up in a rural area, he didn’t play elite youth club soccer and went to play college ball at UC Riverside — certainly a program that has produced many pros over the years, but not a titan of NCAA soccer in California. On the books successively at both the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, he only played for their reserve teams, and signed on to do the same at a third MLS club, the New York Red Bulls, before his fortunes really changed. After winning the USL league title and league Defender of the Year honors in 2016, Long signed a first team deal with the Red Bulls and became a fixture at MLS level starting in 2017.

Long has experience winning a trophy at top flight level, the 2018 Supporters’ Shield, and won MLS Defender of the Year the same season. Making his U.S. Men’s National Team debut that same year, and present with the USMNT at the 2022 World Cup, Long truly paid his dues in the pro ranks, so the 30-year-old is not afraid of hard work.

He’s also exactly the kind of player who will be comfortable with the target on his team’s backs as the reigning MLS Cup champions.

“I feel extremely ready,” Long explained. “Again. I know this club has big aspirations and it’s a team that they want silverware and wants trophies. Four chances to win trophies is an amazing opportunity. And I think I know that the club knows that and we’re gonna go for it.”

Even though Long projects to be a starter for LAFC, their center back corps remains pretty deep heading into the season, with Jesús David Murillo and Giorgio Chiellini returning, Long and Maldonado joining the fray, and homegrown Tony Leone possibly in frame to compete for first team minutes this year. Last year, head coach Steve Cherundolo successfully used a rotation for his central defenders in the second half of the season, and given the four competitions Long cited that LAFC will be competing in — MLS, Concacaf Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup — the starter positions are not likely to be fixed.

Long said he and the rest of the squad understand the marathon that will be the upcoming campaign.

“I think more than anything, I think iron sharpens iron, right? So as many great players as we can have in these positions, like we said there’s so many competitions this year and there’s going to be so many games. And it’s a really tight schedule. So I think we’re gonna have to rely on everyone at some point in the season. So to be able to have depth in that position is amazing. I don’t think anyone truly knows their full role yet, right? We’re in two days into season, but it’s an amazing group so far. So I think we’re all just really excited to get going,” he said.

LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington, when asked why the club has been so successful in its short history at signing MLS Free Agents, noted that he believes players and their agents talk to one another around the league, and his approach has been to treat players and their families well.

“I think from the first day I got blessed with this role, I think I always said to our owners, I wanted this to be a destination of choice and a place where our players love playing here. And that, of course has to do with success. Players love winning. But it’s more than that. I think it’s how we as a club, strive to treat our players from day one until even beyond their career and I think that starts with owners. We have a phenomenal staff that take care of every possible need,” Thorrington explained.

The two trophies from 2022 don’t hurt, either, but while LAFC’s roster is undergoing some changes ahead of 2023, the likes of Long signing on should help the club in their quest to add more trophies to the cabinet.

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