Aaron Long’s loss is a devastating blow to the Red Bulls. (Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

There is little doubt that Aaron Long will be one tough, tough act to follow.

After all, he was the MLS defender of the year for the Red Bulls in 2018 and had the inside track of being a starter at center back for the U.S. men’s national team when World Cup qualifying starts in September.

That has been negated as the 28-year-old has been sidelined for the season with an Achilles tendon injury.

“This was absolutely an outstanding painful moment when we realized that Aaron Long is injured with a big injury,” Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber said on a Zoom media call Thursday.

“He is a player with a big leadership. He is an outstanding person with the right mentality. … It’s a deep cut for me, for my whole team, for the club. It’s not easy to handle the situation right now for Aaron Long.”

Sean Nealis, who has partnered with Long in the middle of the backline, realized the Red Bulls will be missing a vital player as they prepare for Saturday night’s encounter at the New England Revolution in Foxborough, Mass.

“That’s a very tough loss for us,” he said. “He is a very prominent player on our team, a very prominent player for the national team as well. We all know we have to step up a little more now. everyone’s got to give a little more. Personally, I’m gutted by it. I love I love playing with him. I’ve learned from him over the last few years. He’s got a great story, and we only wish the best for his recovery along. We want to help in whatever way we can.”

The big question is who is going to replace Long in the short and long term.

For the short term, Struber said that 21-year-old Colombian Andres Reyes, obtained by the Red Bulls from CF Inter Miami during the offseason, will start Saturday. Reyes hasn’t played a minute this season.

“Andres is ready,” he said. “He showed me this week. One more step in the right direction. We will give him the chance on Saturday for the first time to show us what he can.”

The long term might not be as easy. Let’s face it. It is not easy to find a player with the same stature or in the same orbit as Long, a big center back who is physical and fast. And depending who is available on the transfer market, it could come at a steep price.

For the time being, Struber said the Red Bulls can handle the loss of Long.

“Right now, we can handle the situation in our roster,” he said. “I think we have some good replacements, but we understand that Aaron Long is not a normal player here in our roster. He is an absolutely outstanding leader, and we need a replacement for him [in] the long run. I think we have to look also outside for a replacement.”