Photo courtesy of Ben Solomon/New York Red Bulls
Before FC Tucson was announced as the latest founding member of USL Division III on Tuesday, the club was well known as one of the premier pre-professional teams across North America. That status had been built by the team’s operational excellence since day one and the many talented players who suited up for FC Tucson over the years, including current New York Red Bulls standout Aaron Long.
“I’m super excited for them,” Long, who is currently with the Red Bulls for preseason camp in Tucson, Arizona, told USLD3.com. “Honestly, I expected nothing less the way the team carried itself since it came into the PDL and the way it really started dominating and doing really well our first couple of years.”
Long is among the top of FC Tucson’s distinguished list of alumni – which also includes Orlando City SC defender Donny Toia, as well as recent Major League Soccer SuperDraft selections Jon Bakero and Afonso Pinheiro.
The 25-year-old defender played three seasons for FC Tucson – two in the PDL, where he scored three goals in 17 appearances – and was a four-year performer at the University of California, Riverside. Long was then selected 36th overall by the Portland Timbers in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
“I played for FC Tucson for three summers after my freshman, sophomore and junior years of college,” Long said. “I think freshman year, [former Managing Partner and General Manager of FC Tucson] Jonathan Pearlman hit up my college coach and said they were looking for a center-mid and looking for some good players, and I decided to come out here and see what it’s all about. I fell in love with the environment, the coaching staff and teammates – really had a good time.”
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports
FC Tucson had served as a premier launching pad for aspiring professionals – and not only for players. Former Head Coach Rick Shantz is now an assistant coach with the USL’s Phoenix Rising FC, while Pearlman recently accepted a role as an assistant coach for Energy FC.
“The coaching staff was so great with Rick Shantz and Jon Pearlman, who are amazing guys,” Long said. “For the first year, we weren’t even in the PDL. We were knocking on the door to get into the PDL, to show the league that we were good enough and had a fan base, stadium and facilities to be in the PDL.
“The next year when I came back, everything had been ramped up – the uniforms, the training facilities. Everything was even better. We had a fitness coach, and we were training out of the center where all the MLS teams are at for preseason. My junior year, I came back as well just because the team was getting better, the league was getting better, and it was just really good in the offseason for me to come out here and get touches on the ball and get better.”
In the professional ranks, Long worked hard in the USL for a number of years to prove his quality, and in 2016, he finally had his breakout season. He was voted 2016 USL Defender of the Year after helping the New York Red Bulls II record 13 shutouts in 22 regular-season appearances. He was also a major contributor to the team’s USL Cup run and final victory as well.
In 2017, he made his first MLS appearance and proved to be one of the Red Bulls’ brightest talents. He finished the season with the most playing time among all the team’s defenders with 2,659 minutes, while he also helped the team record 10 shutouts.
“I think, first and foremost, [USL Division III is] just another way for players who maybe don’t get the first look or the opportunity to get into MLS or the USL – who are still really good players but for some reason get passed up – to show that they are good players and can move up the ranks, get touches on the ball, perfect their craft a little bit more to get into the USL and hopefully in MLS,” Long said. “It’s another platform for players all around the U.S. to really help themselves get better and give a second chance for those guys who are good enough, but for whatever reason, the circumstances weren’t good.”
FC Tucson has wanted professional soccer for a long time, Long says, and with Tuesday’s announcement now public, the club is now well known across the U.S. for being more than just a top pre-professional side. Now, Tucson is a professional soccer city.
“There’s a reason why all the MLS teams come out here to Tucson to train in the offseason – not just because it’s warm. The facilities are unbelievable.”