Aaron Long Family Day 05272023

part of an ongoing series that introduces LAFC players in their own words

When I get asked where I’m from by someone who’s not from California, I just say I’m from LA. It’s easier that way rather than trying to explain my small town. If I say I’m from Hesperia or the High Desert they’re like, ‘Where’s that?’ And I have to explain that it’s an hour and a half outside LA on the way to Vegas. I’m proud of my small town in the High Desert, but to most, I just say, ‘I’m from LA.’

When LAFC first got off the ground in 2017-2018 I was playing for the New York Red Bulls. I was loyal to my club, but yes, I noticed that there was a new MLS team near my hometown. LAFC’s arrival increased the odds that I could go back home at some point and play in front of my family. That’s the end-all-be-all for all athletes – to play the sport they love, in their hometown, with their family close by. So many footballers have ended their careers with their boyhood club. Even Messi has said that one day he’d like to go back to Argentina and play one more year with the club he started with after all he has done. Playing at home is the dream.

When I became a free agent after the 2022 season in New York, the decision about what came next was up to me. LAFC would have been very attractive even if I wasn’t from this area. I saw the players who had come here: Vela and Bale and Chiellini and more. And I saw how good the team had been since 2018, winning a Supporters’ Shield, challenging to win MLS Cup, then winning it the year before I came here. So, there was a lot of draw already. But when you throw in the opportunity to play in front of my family and friends? It was gonna be hard for any team to pull me away from signing with LAFC.

Hesperia is a little area that popped up on the map way out in the desert. It's starting to get more populated now, but in the 80s and 90s there wasn’t a lot going on. There are some neighboring cities like Victorville, where I was born, and little mountain towns nearby like Wrightwood Mountain – there’s good snowboarding there – but most of it is just desert, small communities, not much to do, so my family did sports. That’s an understatement. We lived sports. My brother and sister and I were always either playing or going to practice or messing around with some kind of competition around the house. My brother Auston is two years older than me, and he and I were always playing basketball or soccer, going at each other 1-v-1. My sister Alexis (two years younger than me) would try to get involved but she was a lot smaller so we didn’t let her play as much as she wanted to.

My dad played sports growing up and ran marathons but was always more of a fighter. My mom was a great athlete and played basketball and softball at Cal State Dominguez Hills. My parents were both into martial arts and that is where they met; they earned black belts in shotokan karate and practiced for many years. Any kind of physical activity, our family loved it. As kids we played everything – basketball, soccer, baseball, football – but we also branched out and did tennis, boxing, roller hockey, and other odd things like archery and rock climbing. Hats off to my mom. She kept us busy. It was her way of keeping us out of trouble in the desert, because kids with a lot of time on their hands in that community can go wayward.

So why soccer? I’m not really sure; I think it chose me. I was always gifted athletically and excelled in most sports growing up – making all-star teams, playing up in older age groups with my brother to challenge myself. I had a room full of trophies and medals, we all did, but for some reason in soccer I was in a league of my own from a very young age. I don’t know where it came from or why, but my parents tell me I always had a ball at my feet around the house or when we would run errands.

I started out as a sweeper – the last line of defense. When you’re a young kid that’s where your better players will play. You clean things up in the back but you can also dribble all the way forward, so I’d stop an attack and then take it all the way forward, then run back and do it again. Once we moved to a big field and played 11-v-11, I became a center midfielder. I stayed at center mid from age 10 or 11 all the way through my college career at UC Riverside, and with my first two professional teams.

The Portland Timbers drafted me out of college. I had to work really hard for that after not getting called to the MLS Combine – flying or driving to camps and workouts all over the country just to get on MLS teams’ radar, but Portland picked me and kept me at center mid. I never stepped on the field for the first team. They released me. Seattle picked me up. I was on the 18-man roster a few times but we had an amazing team that year (2014) -- Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins – we won the Supporters’ Shield. Sigi Schmid was our coach, and we’d be ahead 3-0, 4-0, he’d bring in subs to give some of the older guys their curtain call, but I never got to make my debut. Never got that opportunity.

One critically important thing did happen in Seattle, though. Early on, I was on a one-week trial with the club, having just left Portland. It was the Fourth of July, and I met a young woman named Elise who was from Seattle but was living in southern California at the time, so our lives were inverted. She had come home to visit her family for the Fourth and we met on a night out. The connection was there right away (after a bit of persistence on my part). She was there two days, we saw each other both days, then she moved back to California. I signed with Seattle a couple days later. She decided to move back to Seattle to finish school and see if she might be able to build something with this footballer she just met. Nine years later, here we are, happily married with two beautiful kids.

One year after I met Elise, I became a free agent. The New York Red Bulls were interested in me, but there was a catch.

The Red Bulls’ head coach at the time, Jesse Marsch, told my agent, Listen, we think Aaron’s super talented, we want him to come to preseason with us, but only as a center back. He's not gonna play center mid. Tell him if he comes here we don’t wanna hear about ‘I wanna play in the middle’ and all that.

It was a big decision. Usually you “move back” as you get older – wingers become outside backs, center mids become center backs. But I was 23 years old. I hadn’t played center back since I was a little kid. And now I had to re-learn the position at a high level with no room for error. I’ll be honest, I didn’t wanna go, but my agent convinced me. He said, “this coach is amazing. If he sees something in you, you should definitely take the chance.”

So I went to New York, and the rest is history.

It was the turning point in my career. No doubt. A position change, a system change, a new coach who believed in me. My career accelerated as soon as I got to New York. I started 30 MLS games my first season with the senior team. The next year [2018] I was named MLS Defender of the Year.

Fast-forward to 2022. I had made more than 100 appearances for the Red Bulls, earned 28 caps with the U.S. Men’s National Team, wore the captain’s armband a few times for my country, even scored some goals. Incredible years. In ’22 my contract with NYRB ended and I was a free agent.

In addition to the lure of returning to LA and playing in front of my family, there was the opportunity to play in front of our amazing fanbase. I remembered playing against LAFC in 2019 when I was with New York (we lost); the 3252 made a lasting impression to say the least. Look, every player wants to compliment their supporters section. Every team wants to say, ‘We have the best fans in the league.’ But at LAFC it’s not a sales line.

I hear it from other players around the league, Wow you guys’ fan base is amazing … you guys are so good at home. Our fan base and the 3252 have become a model for a lot of other teams in our league. The supporter culture here – you can see other MLS teams picking up on it and trying to emulate it. Expansion clubs ask for advice from people within the club on how to build a culture like this. So yeah – other MLS teams may talk about it, other players may say it – but I can say it truthfully. It is the best. The support we feel at home is unbelievable, they push us, they help us win. Like I said, playing at home is the dream.

Sometimes I look back on that young college midfielder I was at UCR – kinda immature, tons of energy – I still have a lot of that. Back then I was doing it because it was fun, I was good at soccer, and I was getting a scholarship. Now I have a stronger Why. My purpose is so much clearer. This is my vehicle to provide for my family.

The biggest change for me is the responsibility of a family and my reasons for being an athlete. Our daughter Kaia is three and our son Rome is one. Like all parents I come home and put on the dad hat, but I still feel like that little kid from the desert, just running around having fun. I’m a big jokester in the training facility. I love to give guys a hard time.

Aaron Long Kellyn Acosta Ryan Hollingshead training 04132023

So yes, I’m more mature in the way I go about my craft, how I approach the game, and my recovery – trying to squeeze every drop out of myself because I know how lucky I am to do what I do. I never take it for granted. The game makes you grow in these ways as you move to the highest level, otherwise you will fall by the wayside. So have I grown and matured, yes, just not so much in a behavioral sense off the field.

In the end, my story is about seizing opportunity and believing in yourself. For some people, big breaks come right away, for others we have to take the long road. Embrace the grind and stay true to your roots. Remember everything, the shoves in the back from your older brother, your now-wife saying no the first time you asked for her number, the coaches who didn’t give you a chance, long off-seasons running on dirt roads, working side jobs. Let it drive you, so when your moment comes, you’re ready.

My story is about staying true to yourself.

Aaron Long my story sig
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