Why Allie Long is no longer such a long shot with USWNT
CHESTER, Pa. -- The word sounded so out of place in this setting that when Allie Long used it once, she quickly repeated it as if she needed to hear it out in the open to make sure it belonged.
How did Long feel this past winter when, even while she wouldn't admit as much to herself, it looked as if the 28-year-old athlete's dream of playing soccer for her country had come to an end?
She felt sad.
There is always sadness in sports, of course. It just isn't a word that comes up often when we talk about them. Maybe people who write and talk about wins and losses search for synonyms with more heft, or at least more letters, to describe the opposite of success. Sad sounds almost too simple to explain an emotional state. Losing teams are heartbroken, defeated athletes are distraught. There is agony and misery. Sometimes those emotions feed rage and fury.
Athletes are proactive. They tell us they control their fate. They don't do vulnerable.
Sadness is passive, almost poignant. It is emotion on a human scale.
That was why it was so jarring to hear Long use it. It was an admission she didn't control her fate, that she had frailties and fears like all of us.
And that wanting something might not be enough to make it so.
Mind you, Long wasn't sad as she spoke a day ahead of the second in a two-game series between the United States women's national team and Colombia (Sunday at 2 ET on ESPN). To the contrary, the smile on her face when Tobin Heath jumped on her back as they walked to the practice field spoke to a very different emotional state.
Days earlier, playing her first game in nearly two years for the national team, Long scored two goals in a 7-0 win against Colombia. Even as Long spoke, her coach had already said that the midfielder would be back when the national team reconvenes after the opening weeks of the National Women's Soccer League season.
Taking the place against Colombia of the injured Morgan Brian in the No. 6 role, the deepest set midfielder asked to be the team's connective tissue, offense to defense and defense to offense, Long earned rave reviews at a position whose value isn't always so evident in the final stats.
"They're the pivot, they're kind of the point guard and, at times, the quarterback," Jill Ellis said of the role. "It's still a very valuable position. You can't just be a player that defends, you can't just be a player that tackles. It has to be a player that can solve pressure and set play for us."
It is also a role that in recent years provided arguably the most grumbling among fans when it came to players whose success at the professional level, specifically NWSL, didn't always lead to calls from the national team. Along with beloved club figures like Keelin Winters and Jen Buczkowski, Long appeared headed at 28 years old down a similar path, even as she spent more and more time playing, and scoring, from a more advanced role with Portland Thorns FC.
Part of an NCAA championship team at the University of North Carolina, where coach Anson Dorrance was fond of comparing her to then-Chelsea standout Frank Lampard for both her skill set and leadership within the team, Long played into her sixth professional season before she finally made her first appearance for the United States in 2014. She appeared in four consecutive national team games in the early months of Ellis' time in charge. Then no more.
She continued to excel for the Thorns, making the equivalent of the all-league team in 2015 after being a second-team honoree the season before, but she didn't fit what Ellis wanted for the national team. In 2015, Long was invited to the team's January training camp, that invite an indication a player is on the radar. This past January, she wasn't invited.
"I wish I had a video camera throughout the entire process," Long said of the best way to explain the emotional ups and downs of her journey back to the national team. "I had a really great season in the NWSL, probably the best season I've had. I won a bunch of awards, which I never care about, but I figured that I would at least get a chance. So when I didn't, I think that was the hardest thing. It was something that I feel I had to really persevere through mentally because I felt like I played really well in the season, and [Ellis] didn't call me in."
And that sadness she felt, the wind knocked out of her like a free kick to the gut, ultimately didn't deter her. Save for a brief vacation to Puerto Rico to clear her head, she kept training through the NWSL offseason as relentlessly as if she was part of the national team.
"I'm going to be the best player that I possibly can be and make it to a point where hopefully she can't deny me anymore," Long said of her mindset at that time. "I think I finally kind of reached that point. I never worked as hard as I have this offseason."
Ellis, for her part, noted that the two remained in contact, even as the January camp space went to younger players. With midfield depth one of the biggest questions remaining after Olympic qualifying and success against England, France and Germany in March, she called in Long.
"I think Allie has gotten herself more fit," Ellis said. "One of the challenges I had for her when she was in with us prior was can she change the tempo of the game, can she change her personal tempo in the game? She's very technical, her passing. She's [physical and uncompromising]. She has those attributes. But now I think it's a lot more natural for her to flow down and help in buildup and find seams."
She said she recently watched the live stream of a preseason game between Long's Thorns and Seattle Reign. She had already announced the roster for the Colombia games that included the midfielder at that point, but she wanted to see for herself.
"I think it's my responsibility to continue to look at them and not pigeonhole them into what I thought they were capable of," Ellis said. "I also think, as our team starts to change, what may have been a good fit or not a good fit back then, now you look at it and it's like 'Yeah, maybe that's a fit.' ...
"I try and always look at players as to where they are [at that moment]."
Ellis reiterated Saturday that she has an eye both on the Olympics and the 2019 World Cup and beyond. She wants to devote her resources to players who can still be around three years from now, whether that is with her team or not. She also said Long, who will turn 32 shortly after the 2019 World Cup, has a "legitimate" chance to make this summer's roster for Rio.
And a chance is everything.