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Aaron Long seeks consistency to lead by example for USMNT and New York Red Bulls

Gregg Berhalter outlines the USMNT's busy schedule for 2020 as they begin preparation for World Cup qualifying.
Alejandro Bedoya opens up to ESPN about the state of the USMNT and whether there has been progress since 2017.
Bruce Arena explains to ESPN FC why he's extremely confident the United States will qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

CARSON, Calif. -- Aaron Long has experienced no shortage of life-altering events this offseason.

He got engaged in Maui to his fiancée, Elise, and also took a trip to Japan, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and Mount Fuji, while sampling the local cuisine and some kimonos. As for getting around, that was made easier by the fact that one of his traveling companions spoke some Japanese.

"'Three beers,' was a common phrase for sure," Long said. "But it was probably my favorite vacation I've taken thus far."

But the itch to get back on the field needed to be scratched, as the memory of New York Red Bulls' playoff defeat to the Philadelphia Union lingered.

"It's good to clear your head. You want to let your body heal," Long said. "But you want to start training again. You start getting fit, then you want to start touching the ball. It's just a gradual process that makes you hungry and just want to get back into things."

Long has been doing just that for the last several weeks, taking part in the U.S. men's national team's annual January camp. Meanwhile, transfer speculation from overseas has resurfaced, with ESPN sources confirming a Sky Sports report that the Red Bulls rejected an offer from West Ham United to take the defender on loan.

Long, 27, declined to address his club situation and, while there is a sense the 2018 MLS Defender of the Year has progressed as much as he could in New York, he also seems at peace with the possibility of remaining with the MLS side.

"There's plenty more for me to achieve at the level I'm at now, for sure," he said. "While I'm here, I have to set my goals as high as I can set them."

Aaron Long has won 16 caps for the U.S. men's national team.

Staying at Red Bull arena will see demands increase on the Oak Hills, California, native, especially in the leadership department. The Red Bulls have lost club icons Bradley Wright-Phillips and Luis Robles, and ESPN sources confirmed a report from The Athletic that defender Kemar Lawrence is set to join Belgian side Anderlecht.

Such departures seem like an annual occurrence with the Red Bulls. Three years ago, Dax McCarty was traded; the following season Sacha Kljestan got dealt. That does not mean the challenge facing Long should be minimized, though.

"I know that I'm one of those guys that's definitely gonna have to fill some big shoes and take even more of a leadership role on the team," he said at the U.S. team hotel. "I guess when I get there, I'll see how big those shoes are and what I need to do and kind of assess that situation. But I know what's coming and I know that big things are going to be asked of me for sure."

That is already the case with the national team. Manager Gregg Berhalter has assembled a side with 13 Olympic-eligible players and said on Thursday that the lineup for Saturday's friendly against Costa Rica (LIVE on ESPNEWS, 3:55 p.m. ET) will be "a mix" of youngsters and more veteran types.

Long, as a member of Berhalter's leadership council, is among those asked to help bring the young charges along. The fact that this is his second camp has made things easier. 

"You're problem-solving as a group now instead of seeing everything for the first time, and everyone having their own opinions," he said. "It's a little bit easier this camp. And I think that the returning guys from last January to this January have done a good job [of] coming together and having a clear picture for the younger guys."

Taking on a leadership role is not something that has come naturally to Long. During his first season with the Red Bulls, then-manager Jesse Marsch almost made him wear a microphone in a bid to get the player to be more vocal and a better organizer on the field.

"Marsch didn't [do that], thankfully," Long said. "I probably was not talking as much as I needed to at the time, but that example just shows that there's this learning curve for sure, and I wasn't always an outspoken guy."

Long prefers to lead by example -- maybe with a quiet word here and there -- and that means his play needs to be among the best in the side. He admits he was not consistent with the Red Bulls last season and that the trait is as elusive as it is desirable.

"I think just your mindset going into games is: What does success for you look like on the day? Is it winning on the day? Is it stopping Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] on the day? Every game there's a different task and different things are asked of you, and I think how you're able to change your game, to help your team win, is going to determine how good you were on the day," Long said.

That quest for consistency will resume with the U.S. on Saturday. Unlike last year, there is only the one friendly to cap off the January camp and that has added a sense of urgency when it comes to playing time.

"Everyone's been fighting for a spot," Long said. "There's no next week."

It sounds like the approach that will carry him through the season.

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