How Allie Long delivered on her promise and silenced critics

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Detractors of Long's game remain, but for the Portland Thorns and, now, the USWNT, she has thrived.

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Two games against Russia, and Allie Long’s national team life was back to normal. She was back in midfield, no longer trying to learn on the job in central defense, contributing to the United States’ trademark, one-sided victories. Two goals last week against Russia ran her career total for the United States to five, with her 180 minutes over two games helping restore her place on coach Jill Ellis’ midfield depth chart.

That such standing is Long’s new normal is something that gets taken for granted. If anything, it has made her a target, as evidenced by the sliver of women’s national team fans who constantly litter her Twitter mentions with doubts and criticisms. When she replies to them, breaking the unspoken rule of athlete detachment, life only becomes more difficult, with her defensiveness on social media lumping her in with other notoriously sharp responders, like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux.

This is the path Long sent herself down five years ago, when a player then thought of as one of Women’s Professional Soccer’s underappreciated jewels threw herself into the spotlight, proclaiming after preseason motions at Providence Park that she saw the U.S. national team in her future.

“That’s my goal ...,” Long reiterated three months later, speaking to The Columbian. “If I get frustrated during a game or if practice isn’t going my way, I keep my goal in front of me.”

Since, amid the clustering doubts and derision, Long has repeatedly proved her critics wrong, accumulating 25 international appearances, a place in the 2016 Summer Olympics, two NWSL best-XI honors and 29 goals in 83 league appearances.

In the process, Long has also become a cornerstone for the most popular team in the NWSL. When the league’s fifth season starts on Saturday, she is one of the few Portland Thorns who can claim to have been a full five-year starter.

The price of honest ambition

Five years ago, I was one of those people who, when thinking of Allie Long, thought of her as an underappreciated talent. When she was signed along with Becky Edwards, Nikki Washington and Angie Kerr as part of Portland’s free-agent class in 2013, I thought the Thorns had a steal. If this is what the lure of Major League Soccer resources does on the free-agent market, I thought, Portland really did have an edge.

But that spring, when Long let her national-team ambitions be known, the narrative changed. She went from low-key underdog to something different. She painted a target on herself, one that, at the time, cast her as somebody that thought too much of herself. If, for an athlete, being defensive on social media is one type of sin, hubris may as well be a cardinal one.

I cried out of happiness. I was so thankful to finally get the chance to get called in and looked at in camp.

- Allie Long

Long was 25 years old at the time. She had never been capped internationally, and she rarely seemed to get serious consideration. Not under Pia Sundhage, who brought Long into only one camp (in 2010); not from Tom Sermanni, Sundhage’s newly crowned replacement. At least player, club and national team coach alike confirmed Edwards to be on Sermanni’s radar. Where did Long get off putting herself in that class, the subtext read?

From game one of the NWSL’s inaugural season, however, Long has gone about backing up her words. For a team that would go on to win the league’s first title, Long played all 22 games, leading her team in minutes while adding three goals and three assists. The next spring, she was in national team camp, eventually earning the first of her caps that May against Canada. Scoffed at only 14 months earlier, Long had made her critics eat their own words.

"I cried out of happiness," Long told The Oregonian about her recall. "I was so thankful to finally get the chance to get called in and looked at in camp."

But did she really quiet her critics? Although she was quickly becoming a favorite among Portland’s diehards, skepticism continued to cloud her selections by Ellis, especially since she was being shoehorned into a defensive midfielder’s role. At the time a ball-player over a ball-winner, Long was the latest being subjected to the Lauren Holiday/Morgan Brian treatment: being moved out of position. Did Long’s potential as a holding midfielder really outweigh that of Keelin Winters or Jen Buczkowski, who had already thrived in that role in the NWSL?

Whereas most national team players are relatively spared widespread fan criticism, Long was still being targeted, a state that’s summed up her ascent as much as her constant presence in the national team. I, for one, was among the dissenters. Following the Thorns closely, I had a number of questions as to why Allie Long, very good WPS player who had gone overlooked, had morphed into Allie Long, national team selection who was competing for annual spots in the NWSL’s all-league teams?

Eating my words

The same mentality of playing for your country and being surrounded by the best players is still there. The desire to be the best in that environment is still there.

- Allie Long

Just as in WPS, Long is still a very good player, if more refined now. She is still somebody who can be one of the better players on a title-contending team. She’s still skilled on the ball, aggressive in the final third, and exhibits a willingness and adaptability that’s made her a favorite of all her coaches. There is a reason why, now three years into the process, Long has successfully made the transition from attacking presence to deep distributor. Skill plus intelligence will get you a long way in professional soccer.

With Long, though, those things haven’t changed.

“It is different, but I’m still the same person who wants to be the best player I can be …,” Long said, in January, when asked how her playing life has changed. “It has changed, but the same mentality of playing for your country and being surrounded by the best players is still there. The desire to be the best in that environment is still there.”

What’s changed is the conversation around her. When you’re smart and skilled without expectations, your traits can be judged in a vacuum. There’s no standard to measure you by except for the context around you. Once that context becomes the U.S. national team, however, that standard becomes the highest one. And it’s by that standard that fans continue to judge Allie Long.

Not all fans. For Thorns fans, most of whom prioritize club over country, Long has become a cornerstone. She is the team’s all-time leader in games, starts, minutes and goals. She’s second in assists, third in both shots and shots on goal. She’s won an NWSL championship and NWSL Shield, and through three coaches, she has never failed to earn a crucial spot in the Thorns’ setup. Add Ellis with the national team to Cindy Cone, Paul Riley and Mark Parsons, and you have four coaches who’ve won major honors who consistently disagree with the dissention around Long.

“She’s been outstanding on both sides of the ball,” Cone told American Soccer Now shortly after the Thorns’ debuted in 2013. “She really helps link up play between our defensive line and our forwards. She’s great going forward herself, she’s great with the final pass, she kind of does it all. I think she deserves a look from the national team.”

That’s why I’ve come around on Allie Long; not only in how I talk about her, but also in how I watch her play. For years, I’ve asked those coaches about Long, and the responses have always been the same: praise for her skill and mentality; never a question of the positives she brings to the field. These weren’t improvised, half-measured responses. They were clear answers from four accomplished, independent coaches.

"I would be shocked if she doesn't make it ...," Riley said, in 2014, of Long’s national team future. "She's different than everybody else and she's hungry. If you are that hungry, anything can be attained."

These songs of praise are notable, and not only because they are from accomplished coaches. They’re also from four people who never cared about the debate around Long. Once you discard that discussion and focus on what she’s done, you see somebody who has consistently been among the best midfielders in the NWSL. That she hasn’t quite been Lauren Holiday, Kim Little or Jessica Fishlock shouldn’t be held against her any more than it’s held against Morgan Brian, Sam Mewis, or Lindsey Horan. And just because, like Lloyd before her, Long was willing to share her aspirations with the world, doesn’t mean she should be harshly judged by them.

Even then, though, as with Lloyd, it’s time to admit: Long has walked the walk. She called her shot, and she delivered. On Saturday, at Providence Park, when her fifth season in Portland starts, Allie Long shouldn’t be seen as a point of debate. She should be seen as a point of consistency. For club and country.

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Richard Farley is the deputy editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.