Soccer newsletter: Aaron Long’s comeback is nearly complete

The United States' Aaron Long, left, and Uruguay's Brian Rodriguez chase after a loose ball during a 2019 soccer match.
(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer. Today we will look at LAFC’s unbeaten start; European champion Chelsea, whose future is in doubt after Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine; and this week’s long-awaited return of top-tier women’s pro soccer to Southern California.

But we start with Aaron Long, the New York Red Bulls’ defender from UC Riverside who is hoping this week for a call-up to the U.S. national team for the final three World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica.


If he hadn’t ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in May, Long would be packing instead of waiting for a call.

He made his international debut in the fall of 2018 and wore the captain’s armband in his third game. He started in five of the six matches in the 2019 Gold Cup and made the all-tournament team.

If he wasn’t a sure-fire starter in qualifying, he certainly was on the short list. But that all ended when he landed awkwardly during an aerial challenge in second-half stoppage time of a game last May in Philadelphia.

Nearly 10 months later, Long is still clawing his way back and looking to make his qualifying debut.

“It was tough for sure,” he said. “Everything starts flashing through your head, all the things you’re going to miss. They’re telling me it’s a nine-to-12-month injury. You really just don’t know how it’s going to go down.

“It was a tough break. I just had to kind of switch my mindset into rehab mode so I could miss as little as possible.”


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The comeback is almost complete. Long was called into training camp in December and January but didn’t play in the team’s most recent friendly. He also was left off the roster for this year’s first three qualifiers.

But he went 90 minutes in the surprising Red Bulls’ first three MLS games this season and scored his first MLS goal in more than 16 months in the middle one, signaling to U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter that he’s more than fit enough to be of some help.

The United States' Aaron Long, left, and Uruguay's Brian Rodriguez chase after a loose ball during a 2019 match.
(Jeff Roberson / AP)

And there’s more than a little sense of urgency. The U.S. goes into this qualifying window on the verge of clinching a berth in November’s World Cup in Qatar. If Long can reestablish himself on the team, he could be back in the lineup in the fall.

If not … well, he’d rather not think about that.

“This is my chance here,” he said. “This is when I’m going to be in my prime. I’ll be 30 for the World Cup. I feel great.

“It’s a terrible injury, but you can look at it on the other side where I had a full eight, nine months to get my body as ready as I possibly can. I feel ready to go.”

Long has gotten some help on the road back from national team forward Jordan Morris, who suffered a gruesome ACL injury three months before Long was hurt. The two players checked in on one another’s rehabilitation and exchanged text messages while watching national team games they couldn’t play in.


Long said it wasn’t hard to root for Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson, two players who have established themselves on the back line in his absence.

“I am such good friends with the players, and the guys in my position as well,” he said. “I need them to win these games because I want to qualify for Qatar. If we’re losing games in these qualifying matches, that doesn’t benefit me at all. I need everyone to be playing at their absolute best.”

When Morris completed his comeback by playing in all three World Cup qualifiers this winter, that also boosted Long’s hopes.

“It’s easy to relate to him, and he’s done it before, so it’s easy to lean on him,” Long said.

But if Morris provided the inspiration, Long never has needed help when it comes to single-mindedness and determination. As a senior at Serrano High in Phelan, Long tried football — the tackle kind — and says he wound up leading the league in interceptions.

He already had settled on another kind of athletic career, however.

“I was well-known around my school as a guy who had high hopes and high expectations in soccer,” said Long, part of a long parade of Southern California players who have stood out with the national team, a list that includes Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra, Sacha Kljestan, Eric Wynalda, Gyasi Zardes and Cobi Jones.

“My football head coach would tell [colleges] right away, ‘Oh no, he’s a soccer player,’ ” Long continued. “‘He’s not going to go to school to play soccer and football.’ ”

So he spent four years as a one-sport athlete at UC Riverside before being drafted by the Portland Timbers. He also spent time with the Sacramento Republic, Orange County Blues and Seattle Sounders before making his MLS debut with the Red Bulls in 2017 at age 25.


A year later, he was starting for the national team. Now, this week he’s hoping for a call back.

“I’m putting all my eggs in this basket,” he said. “And I’m going to go for it as my one shot.”

LAFC rumbles in the rain; Galaxy stumble in Seattle

LAFC's Kwadwo Opoku, front, and Colorado's Lalas Abubakar jump for a header.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

LAFC won just one road game in 2020, the worst performance in the franchise’s brief history. The team already has matched that total one road game into the 2022 schedule after Saturday’s wet and windy 2-0 win over Inter Miami in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

But the result, which carried LAFC (2-0-1) to the top of the Western Conference standings, was about the only thing coach Steve Cherundolo was happy with.

“Aside from the win and the clean sheet, we have a lot to work on,” he said.

The trip to South Florida was LAFC’s longest for a regular-season game since 2019, and the midday East Coast start apparently was a challenge. In addition to the time change, Cherundolo’s game plan also was impacted by the weather, which featured gale-force winds and pouring rain.

LAFC put just two shots on target, although both resulted in goals — by Kwadwo Opoku in the dying minutes of the first half and by second-half substitute Ismael Tajouri-Shradi with eight minutes left in regulation. For Tajouri-Shradi, who played last season with New York City FC, the goal came in his LAFC debut. Opoku, a 20-year-old from Ghana, scored his first goal in 10 MLS matches.


“It was challenging,” Opoku said of the conditions. “When you kick the ball, the wind takes the ball. But we fought with it, and we made a win from it.”

Added Cherundolo: “It affected the game more than we thought it would. There were winds going in all directions. They were swirling winds, which makes it very difficult to predict. Keeping the ball on the ground seemed difficult as well.

“Windy conditions are the most difficult conditions to play this game. And we had lots of that today.”

Despite the unbeaten start, Cherundolo’s team still is coming together. Captain Carlos Vela, who came out at halftime of the last game, started Saturday and went 70 minutes. He hasn’t played a full game since August. And Christian Arango, last season’s leading scorer, has started just one of the team’s first three games. He came off the bench Saturday to play the final 30 minutes.

LAFC wasn’t able to exploit a manpower advantage either. Inter Miami played the second half with just 10 men after defender Brek Shea drew a red card in first-half stoppage time.

Cherundolo’s team will try to continue its unbeaten streak Sunday at home, where it will face the winless Vancouver Whitecaps (0-2-1) in its final game before a two-week international break.

The Galaxy, meanwhile, slipped from the ranks of the unbeatens Saturday with a sloppy 3-2 loss in Seattle, where they haven’t won since 2016.


However, this was one they probably should have had.

“I felt like we controlled the vast majority of the game. I didn’t feel like they had really any attacking solutions,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said. “We had good control of the game as it relates to the ball. We had good control of the game as it related to chances in the run of play. We just undo ourselves by the set-piece goals.”

Galaxy defender Julian Araujo.
(Associated Press)

None of Seattle’s three scores came from the run of play, but all three involved Galaxy defender Julian Araujo. On the first, after a corner, Araujo poked the ball over the goal line, although Seattle’s Jordan Morris was credited with the goal that tied the score 1-1. On the second, Araujo fouled the Sounders’ Freddy Montero, setting up a penalty kick Montero converted for a 2-1 lead just before halftime.

Then, after the Galaxy had fought back to tie the score, an Xavier Arreaga header off a free kick put Seattle in front to stay in the 72nd minute. The play should have ended in an offside call, but Araujo went back instead of forward on the free kick, allowing Seattle to stay in an onside position.

“Infuriating is the emotion at the end of it,” Vanney said. “I felt like we beat ourselves today, and that’s frustrating.”

The Galaxy’s two goals came from Javier “Chicharito” Hernández in the sixth minute and Douglas Costa three minutes into the second half. The goal by Costa was his first in MLS.

The three goals the Galaxy allowed were the first they have conceded this season; Seattle put just four shots on goal, but three of them went in.


“The way we conceded goals was all too easy,” Vanney said.

Added midfielder Mark Delgado: “It’s definitely fixable. It’s good and bad, but good more that it’s happening now, early on in the season. Defending set pieces is definitely fixable. We just all need to be on the same page.”

“We outplayed them the whole game,” he added. “At the end of the day, we come out on the bottom, which is pretty frustrating.”

The Galaxy (2-1-0) will play host to Orlando City (1-1-1) on Saturday afternoon in their final game before the international break.

Sanctions put Chelsea’s future ‘in serious danger’

Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich sits alone in the stands with his hand holding his chin
Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich.
(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

Last week’s major soccer-related headline from Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine involved English Premier League club Chelsea, the reigning European champion, which essentially was put in a state of suspended animation when the UK government froze the assets of several Russian oligarchs, including Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.

Abramovich, reported to be a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has owned the club for 20 years and has won 21 trophies, including two Champions League, two Europa League titles and five Premier League crowns. But now the team needs a special license to continue playing games through the end of May and has been banned from conducting new business, such as buying and selling players or negotiating new contracts with current players. Chelsea cannot sell club merchandise, and only season-ticket holders who already have passes for the remaining games can attend home matches.

The prohibitions affect all of Chelsea’s clubs, including its four-time WSL champion women’s team and its academy program. The team payroll is reported to be about $36 million a month, which must be paid from cash on hand. It’s uncertain how the team will be able to pay its bills once its bank account runs dry. That could happen by the end of March.


“It’s not hyperbole to say the future of the club is in serious danger,” former Chelsea winger Pat Nevin told the BBC.

The team’s shirt sponsor Three, a British telecommunications company, also has suspended its $52-million-a-year relationship with the organization.

Abramovich, who bought the team in 2003 for $183 million, already had put the club up for sale. Among the 200 parties that reportedly have shown interest is one headed by Todd Boehly, a co-owner of the Dodgers, Lakers and Sparks, and another based in Saudi Arabi. Chicago Cubs owner Thomas Ricketts, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson and MMA fighter Conor McGregor also reportedly are in the mix.

Back in Ukraine, the country’s first-division league was scheduled to return from its extended winter break Feb. 25, but that was wiped out when the Russian army invaded the country the day before. Russia’s Premier League has continued playing, although several coaches and players have fled the country for either protest or personal safety.

FIFA has said it will allow clubs to sign up to two players who had been at clubs in Russia or Ukraine outside the normal transfer window. Players and coaches who were working in the two countries were allowed to leave their clubs last week, but only through the rest of the 2021-22 season.

FIFA has suspended all Russian teams from international competition, and UEFA, the umbrella organization representing European leagues, has expelled Russia’s top leagues as members.

Russian clubs already are seeing foreigners leave, including two German coaches. Daniel Farke quit Krasnodar after seven weeks on the job, and Markus Gisdol left Lokomotiv Moscow in protest of the invasion.

Dynamo Moscow assistant coach Andriy Voronin, a Ukrainian, left his Russian team early in the conflict, as did eight Krasnodar players, including former France international Rémy Cabella and Sweden winger Victor Claesson, who asked for their contracts to be suspended so they could leave Russia.

Going back to Cali, Cali

Christen Press
Christen Press
(Getty Images)

Angel City will play the first game in franchise history Saturday when it meets the San Diego Wave, another NWSL expansion team, in group play of the Challenge Cup at Cal State Fullerton. The match also will be the first for a first-division women’s team in Southern California since the Los Angeles Sol folded after one season in 2009.


For U.S. national team standout Christen Press, a Southern California native, that’s long overdue.

“I have been waiting for professional women’s soccer to come back to L.A. The game needs to be here because it has such a stronghold on youth soccer in the country,” said Press, who was Angel City’s first signing. “So many girls that play soccer in Southern California now get to see the game at the highest level.”

Coach Freya Coombe agreed.

“You come here and realize what a sporting city it is, the number of sports teams, how competitive, and how much everyone loves sports. It is vital to have representation of women’s football in this city,” she said. “Looking at the talent that California produces, it’s a massive issue not to have a team in California until this point.

“There’s so much talent coming out of the colleges and youth systems here.”

San Diego’s star player Alex Morgan, a teammate of Press with the U.S. women, also is a Southern Californian, having played at Diamond Bar High.

Angel City goalkeeper Brittany Isenhour, who grew up in Colorado, said the importance of having role models in Southern California can’t be overstated for young girls who want to play soccer.

“You have to see her to be her,” she said. “It wasn’t until I saw the national team play in my hometown that I knew that I could chase this as a career. It’s really amazing that the girls in Southern California can see that, and there’s also now a level of competition within this community having San Diego and L.A. represented.”

But as important as all that is, the players are also just looking forward to finally playing a competitive game after what has been a long preseason training camp.


“I think we’re all excited,” midfielder Hope Breslin said.

And finally there’s this …

Speaking of the NWSL, the league last week named Jessica Berman its new commissioner. Berman previously served as deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs for the National Lacrosse League. She also earlier spent 13 years with the NHL as vice president and deputy general counsel for the league and as vice president of community development, culture and growth and executive director of the NHL Foundation. Berman replaces Lisa Baird, who resigned last fall after the league was rocked by allegations of sexual coercion, inappropriate behavior and emotional abuse by coaches and other officials. … The U.S. beat Mexico 2-0 (familiar score, no?) to win the CONCACAF U-20 women’s championship Saturday in the Dominican Republic. The U.S., which qualified for this summer’s U-20 World Cup in Costa Rica, did not allow a goal in seven games and outscored the opposition 49-0.


Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.


“We don’t we don’t want an environment where people are going to get beer thrown on them, or certainly where they’re being involved in any kind of violence. We want the opposite. We want to create a family atmosphere just like a baseball game or whatever. And I think we’ve had some success.”

Texas billionaire Paul Foster, a member of FC Juárez’s cross-border ownership group, on the Liga MX’s efforts to control rowdy fans after this month’s bloody riot in Querétaro

Until next time...

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