Midfielder Allie Long finally finds right fit with U.S. national team

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Allie Long has just 12 caps on her résumé, but she has started both games in the Olympics for the U.S. women.

MANAUS, Brazil -- Allie Long is in some ways uniquely suited to play a game in the largest city on the dauntingly vast Amazon River. Her husband is from a Brazilian family. She understands Portuguese better than most of her teammates (or those Americans covering them). She even grew up with a penchant for toucans, for goodness' sake, the birds that are surely a better bet to be found in this part of the world than in Portland, Oregon or Paris or Chapel Hill, North Carolina -- or any of the other places soccer has taken her.

Manaus is a surprising place to find a major global sporting event. It isn't easy to get here, as far from Rio de Janeiro as Chicago is from Los Angeles and surrounded by largely impassable rainforest.

But it is worth the effort. It is a place with a story to tell.

Sometimes such circumstances make for the best stories.

"The coolest thing about Allie is the number of times she's been turned down," said Tobin Heath, a teammate now and also at the University of North Carolina nearly a decade ago. "And I think in a way that other players would get discouraged, because she loves to play and she has a great belief in herself and her game, she would just always come back."

There's a reasonable chance Long will not be on the field when the United States plays Colombia in the Arena Amazonia in the final game of Group G on Tuesday (6 p.m. ET). That sentence wouldn't have elicited much surprise anytime the past few years. Few would have predicted she would play because few would have predicted she'd be here.

That she might not play because she is too valuable for what comes next is a change in plot.

The United States needs just a draw against Colombia -- which has yet to score in five meetings since 2011 against the U.S. women -- to clinch Group G. With talk of unrest over players going unpaid, the Colombians continue to shed talent. Lady Andrade is expected to miss Tuesday's game with what was termed by team officials as exhaustion. So it is that the United States might seek as much rest as is prudently possible for the legs that expended the most energy in wins in the team's first two games.

We didn't have a pure No. 6, and we needed depth in the midfield. I think that gave her a great shot at this, and she seized it with both hands.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis on Allie Long working her way onto the roster

A 28-year-old veteran who has been on the fringes of the national team for so long that her bio page on the team website doesn't even have the spiffy childhood-pictures-and-favorite-moments treatment, Long started the Olympic opener against New Zealand as a defensive midfielder and played 90 minutes.

Then she did it again against France, the third-ranked team in the world.

"Her role as a No. 6, more pulled back, has helped her because she keeps possession so well for us," Heath said. "I feel like she really joins the lines together between the midfield and the defense. She allows us to build out of the back in really great ways. I think she's trying to do simple things really, really well, and that's one of the hardest things in the game to do."

That role made all the difference for the United States a year ago in the World Cup when Morgan Brian emerged midway through the tournament as a skilled practitioner of those subtle arts, freeing Carli Lloyd to play a more dedicated attacking role and begin the goal-scoring binge on which the co-captain remains.

That isn't Brian's natural role, but she remained there much of this year and might yet return to the position in this tournament. It isn't natural either for Lindsey Horan, who partnered with Brian behind Lloyd through much of Olympic qualifying. Brian and Horan are two of the recent wunderkinds of American soccer. Brian, 23, was the youngest player on the World Cup roster a year ago, and Horan, 22, would have just completed her senior year in college if she hadn't instead turned pro out of high school.

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Midfielder Allie Long, who has just 12 caps for the United States, was named the "woman of the match" in Saturday's 1-0 victory over France.

Yet as the third member of the trio tasked with filling the No. 6 and No. 8 roles, the often-overlooked Long made the group whole.

"For me, it was nice to be able to play the No. 8 and get in the attack more and have a little bit more free reign to attack and get forward," Brian said after the opening win. "I think Allie played great in the No. 6, and I think it's great for all three of us midfielders to be able to play any position with how many minutes everyone is going to have to play in such a short period of time."

It is quite the turnaround for someone whose international aspirations appeared imperiled when Jill Ellis took over as coach in 2014. Long appeared in four of the first five games Ellis coached but then vanished, a standout for the Portland Thorns in NWSL but absent for the United States.

"When Allie was with the team before, when I first took over, I was pretty up front with her and just said there were certain things I think needed to improve," Ellis said. "Tactical positioning, speed of play. But I think she really went away and committed to that."

In January, Long wasn't among the 26 players invited to the team's training camp.

Ellis said in Manaus that she received numerous reports about how good Long looked this NWSL preseason -- not just from her own coaches or coaches in the league but from players already on the national team. She said Long also checked in regularly, wanting to know what she needed to do. Eventually, with Olympic qualifying completed and the outlines of a roster seemingly already in place, Long received an invite for the national team camp that preceded multiple spring friendlies against Colombia. She was there again for a pair of June friendlies against Japan.

And she was there when the final roster was announced, the least-capped player on the active roster.

"We didn't have a pure No. 6, and we needed depth in the midfield," Ellis said. "I think that gave her a great shot at this, and she seized it with both hands."

She keeps possession so well for us ... She allows us to build out of the back in really great ways.
Tobin Heath on U.S. teammate and fellow midfielder Allie Long

The coach didn't directly address how small Long's window might have been, but given the timing involved, it is easy to imagine that a bad day or two in those April or June practices, the kind of day every player endures, might have scuttled the whole thing.

Little wonder, then, that Alex Morgan had to tell Long to calm down on the bus ride to the opening game; she was too full of energy for the moment that was so long coming. A few nights later Long sat on the dais in the postgame news conference as the player of the match.

"It's kind of weird because I've always had to develop outside of the team," Long, who turns 29 on Saturday, said of her path. "Where usually you get brought in, you get a couple of camps, you get to develop here against the girls and see where you stand. Right before a world tournament, I kind of got brought in, was in a couple of camps, and didn't make the roster. So I had to go back and develop on my own and make sure I was developing so when I came in I had an impact."

Last summer, Long missed out on the World Cup roster and had to watch from afar, one more window shut.

"Knowing I was so close to it and then watching them, it was definitely tough," Long said. "But my closest friends are on the team. I'm proud to [cheer for the] USA, and I want them to win and do the best they can, but of course there is a part of me that wished I was there."

There are no easy ways to get to Manaus. But Long will be here Tuesday night.

Too valuable not to play. Unless she is too valuable to play.

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