A New York Soccer Story: Portland’s Allie Long

Getty Images/Doug Pensinger

By JAKE NUTTING

downloadThere was no such thing as women’s professional soccer when Allie Long was growing up in Northport, N.Y., on Long Island.

That doesn’t mean Long, 29, was without an example to look up to, though. She spent most weekends in her formative years tagging along to watch her mother’s games.

“My mom has played her whole life,” Long said. “I remember always just wanting to play, loving to play, always playing with my mom. I would bring my ball to her games on the weekends and I would juggle on the sideline and just watch her play.”

While the U.S. women’s national team program was still in its infancy, the 3-year-old Long was picking up the sport in the Huntington Boys Club coed league. The Portland Thorns star didn’t mind being one of the only girls. Not one bit.

“I had a neighbor that was a boy and we would always have some kind of game going on,” she recalled. “I just ran into a hometown friend who had an older brother. When he saw me he was like ‘you know you made it because we would kick the crap out of you at soccer and treated you like one of us. That’s what made you so tough.’ I was always up for a challenge with the guys. I loved it.”

From HBC, Long moved on to the Northport Cow Harbor Mustangs of the Long Island Junior Soccer League before ultimately landing at Albertson Soccer Club, where she helped the Albertson Express claim four straight State Open Cups under the guidance of Adrian Gaitan. Over a decade later, Long still credits Gaitan as the most influential coach in her career.

“I still remember everything that he taught me,” she said. “He’s one of the best coaches and mentors I’ve had. He was not easy on me whatsoever. He would yell at me all the time and I think that’s what made me so tough. I grew up with a coach that would hold everyone accountable and held me to the highest standards, higher than anyone on the team.”

Leading Northport High School to four consecutive undefeated regular seasons, unsurprisingly, left Long with plenty of colleges to choose from. In the end, the pitch from Penn State’s Paula Wilkins won out, in part because it was close enough for Long’s family to road trip to her games.

Long locked down a starting spot early into her freshman season, impressing enough during Penn State’s run to the semifinal of the NCAA Women’s College Cup to catch the eye of U.S. U-20 coach Tim Schulz. When she returned to school after a summer representing the U.S., though, she didn’t like the outlook of the next three years. Wilkins bluntly told her that she shouldn’t expect the team to compete for another title until her senior year. Long was not keen on enduring such a long wait.

Seeking a way out, she angled for a transfer to UCLA before she realized it meant she’d need to sit out a year. She was looking west again after her sophomore year until North Carolina University entered the picture. The longtime Tar Heels coach, Anson Dorrance, had a compelling case. Long was hungry for a title and North Carolina had just claimed its 18th championship. She had to wait until her senior year, but Long eventually celebrated a national title, rallying to beat Notre Dame 2-1 in the final.

“I knew it was going to be a tough place to succeed because it’s so competitive, but that’s what I needed and what I loved,” she said. “I will never forget that championship. We went down in like the first minute, we were losing and I was about to cry and then all of a sudden we won and they were tears of happiness. It made everything worth it.”

With her college career coming to an end, Long suddenly had to figure out her next step. She grew up idolizing Mia Hamm, coveting a national team spot above anything else, but she hadn’t done enough to reach that level. Dorrance kept insisting Long could excel in the league set to launch in 2009, Women’s Professional Soccer.

“I never really thought about the next level,” she said. “I always had bigger dreams, but I always stayed in the moment. I never really knew how it worked ahead of where I was. The leagues were always up and down. There was one and there wasn’t one, so I never really had a team that I could follow and look to for an example. Anson was telling me I could really do it. He was pushing me to go to the combine. I was honestly unsure of myself. He really put that confidence in me.”

Dorrance was right. The Washington Freedom scooped Long up as the seventh overall pick and reached the postseason twice with her as a midfield anchor. Unfortunately, Washington’s time ran out as new ownership relocated the team to Florida. In the fallout, Long found a new home with Sky Blue FC in New Jersey.

When Sky Blue fell short of the postseason, it freed Long to accept an invitation from Paris St.-Germain. Originally, Long went to France for a week to check out the opportunity. That stay was extended to six months when she signed a contract, and it was lengthened again when WPS ultimately folded.

“I went there and loved it. I knew that was the place I wanted to be,” she said. “The culture over there’s just so different. Everything is just about football. I think I had like seven girls on my team from the French national team, so training was so good, better than most of the games actually.”

When her Parisian sojourn came to an end in early in 2012, Long signed with the semi-professional New York Fury. A torn plantar fasciitis, however, eliminated her from contributing much to her hometown team. Fortunately Long recovered in time to be snatched up by the Thorns in the newly formed NWSL in early 2013.

Her first year in Portland ended with the Thorns as the first NWSL champions. Four solid seasons — including two NWSL Best XI selections — in the stable environment provided by the Thorns has enabled Long to finally reach her national team goals. She made her long awaited debut for the senior team in 2014. Since then, she’s consistently been in the mix for minutes with the team.

Long has earned 27 appearances and tallied five goals for the national team since making her debut in 2014. Photograph by Brad Smith/isiphotos.com

Long has earned 27 appearances and tallied five goals for the national team since making her debut in 2014. Photograph by Brad Smith/isiphotos.com

“I’ve always said that I need Portland more than they need me,” she said. “Yes, I’ve done extremely well for them statistically, but having this platform to play every week, to have some of the best players in the country and in the world on your team, being able to train every single day and have these facilities, to do it the right way, has been so crucial in my development.”

Portland’s unrivaled embrace of women’s soccer is the envy of many. The Thorns debuted with an average attendance of 13,320 in their inaugural season and that number has gone up every year, with last year’s average reaching 16,945. Long knows she’s privileged to experience such an atmosphere.

“There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world,” she said. :The Thorns at Providence Park is the standard for what women’s football will look like in the future. Just being able to experience that, to see the passion of the fans and the love from the community is, for me, how it should be everywhere. I’m hoping before I leave this game I get to see more stadiums around the world and our country filled like they do here. I know it’s possible.”