U.S. U-20 midfielder Allie Long had never been in a U.S. Women’s National Team training camp before last January. But the Long Island, N.Y., product has impressed from her first camp and is now a key player for the U.S. team preparing for the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championship.
She’d tried and tried and tried. A regular in the New York ODP and at East Regional Camp, she also racked up state championships with her club team, the Albertson Express, and a bushel of high school awards, but the U.S. National Team never came calling for Allie Long.
As she headed off to her freshman year at Penn State last fall, Long decided she wasn’t going to sweat it anymore.
“I would play well, but I always felt it wasn’t good enough,” said Long, who played 90 minutes in a 2-0 win against Brazil on April 19. “Or the national team coach would call my club coach to come watch me, but I would have a bad game or I just didn’t play as well as I could have. People would tell me I would make it, but then I just never did. I thought, maybe there is something that (players making the national team camps) have that I don’t.”
Of course, it often happens in life that when you’re least expecting something, it hits you. For Long, now firmly entrenched on the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team, it hit her fast. Called into her first-ever Women’s Youth National Team training camp in January by U.S. U-20 head coach Tim Schulz, Long is on the verge of representing the USA in the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championship in Russia this coming August.
Her ascension to the U-20s represents a culmination of years of hard work, but it was her freshman season at Penn State in 2005, and in particular, her performance in the NCAA Final Four, that helped vault her to the national team. Although, if you ask Long, it was a performance that could have ended her international career before it started.
In the 2005 NCAA semifinal, the Nittany Lions battled favorite Portland through a scoreless 90 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime. Long played like a woman possessed, attacking with fervor, desperately trying to make something happen for her over-matched side. That competitive edge caught the eye of Schulz.
“The whole game (against Portland) I was in a bad mood because I thought I was playing badly,” said Long, who also had to cope with a man-marking assignment from Portland defensive midfielder Lisa Sari. “I was frustrated at myself. Even the parents from the stands were yelling at me. My coach even asked me what was wrong because of the pissed-off look on my face. But I watched it on video and I guess I played pretty well. A week later, Tim called me. I was really surprised when he told me I played well. I swore on my life that I didn’t. To get that phone call, it was like finally all my hard work paid off.”
Long showed even more grit and courage in the penalty kick shootout, stepping up as a freshman to nail her shot after a senior teammate had missed her team’s previous chance.
“Everyone I knew was watching me, but I wanted to win badly,” said Long of her penalty. “I remember going up there thinking there is no way she is saving this. I was extremely confident for some reason and shot how I always did. After, everyone was like, ‘You made it look so easy!’”
Penn State lost the game, 4-3, in the shoot-out, but she left an impression in Schulz’ mind and notebook.
“Allie has a component that we didn’t have at the time in midfield,” said Schulz, who choose Long for the CONCACAF qualifying roster after seeing her in just one training camp. “She’s very good at driving forward and playing that final through ball, and she’s very clever and has good vision. The Final Four was the third time I had seen her play and it just confirmed that she had what our midfield needed. I saw her take a big leadership role as well, which was a component I didn’t see in earlier games because they weren’t as big of games. That was kind of special to see.”
Long has the tools needed for success at the international level. She’s tall, strong, fast and skillful, able to slice her way through opposing midfields on the dribble, feed well-weighted passes to the forwards, and if she should get into a fifty-fifty tackle, bruises are likely to ensue.
To look at her, you would think she hails from California. She’s 5-foot-8 with blond hair, tinged with highlights, and sports a sweet tan. But as soon as she opens her mouth, the Long Island accent and New York sass give her away.
It was perhaps that East Coast attitude that helped her persevere and eventually break through to the elite level of women’s soccer in the United States. Long thinks her toughness comes from her dad, Jamie, who checks in at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, and still plays competitive rugby at age 44.
“My dad is really competitive,” said Long. “He’s a really good athlete, he loves to win and he’s got a lot of tenacity.”
However she got it, Schulz likes it.
“I think she has that East Coast mentality,” said Schulz. “She’s tough, street smart and has the kind of the attitude that she’s not afraid of anything. Allie blends in perfectly because the common denominator of all our midfielders is that they are very feisty, tenacious and come from winning backgrounds.”
Long has grown more comfortable with her role on the U-20s, developing into a player with confidence to compete against the best in the world at her age group, from a player that was just happy she finally got the call.
“My college season ended and my coach told me that Tim was interested in me,” said Long. “But to me, it was the same old thing; they were interested, but I would never get called. When I finally did get into a camp, it was intimidating. I didn’t know anyone except the New York girls and it was just different from ODP or the regional camps I’ve been in that were so structured. Tim made the players feel at ease, but at the same time challenged us to get better. He focused a lot on having fun instead of worrying how you’re playing. We are all here for a reason, so we can’t focus on mistakes, we just have to play how we know how to play and the let the rest fall into place. So for me, it was much easier to adjust than I thought it would be.”
The adjustment period is over. Now comes even greater challenges like trying to make the final roster, trying to win a starting spot, preparing to win a world championship, and trying to get better at things that might someday lead to a call-up with the full Women’s National Team.
“I think at the last camp in California is where I finally got really comfortable; not fully, but I think I am starting to really enjoy playing with this team more than any other team I’ve been on,” said Long. “Everyone is so good that you know if they make a mistake, they are going to make up for it. These players expect so much out of each other and themselves that it’s just a more fun environment.”
Long now looks back on her teenage years, sans national team camps, and understands that instead of years of disappointment, it was a means to an end.
“I always tried not to get frustrated; I just always focused on my next game,” said Long. “I’ve always wanted to be on the national team since I started playing soccer, probably like every other little girl, but once I made it, I felt like I had accomplished a goal and now I could relax and just play my game. I think that helped me get into the top group of players on the U-20s.”
Long sits as an example of how, if you’ve got the game, you’ll eventually get your shot. Then it’s a matter of what you do with it. Long grabbed hers, wrapped her arms around it, and won’t let go. She might even need an extra carry-on for that flight to Russia.
“I would tell all the girls out there to just play every single game with your total effort,” said Long. “Even if you are not playing well, at least your hard work will carry you through and help your team. And you just never know who is watching.”
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