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Allie Long has earned a shot at USA's Olympic roster

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After steadily improving over three seasons in NWSL, it's Allie Long's time.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Jill Ellis is on a mission. You might have heard her talking about it. Jill Ellis is on a search to find a defensive midfielder - the number 6 as she insists upon referring to the position. From attempting to thrust defensive duties onto Carli Lloyd - a colossal and thankfully rectified mistake - to the ill-fated Tobin Heath defensive midfielder fiasco, Ellis has not been shy about her willingness to resort to wild experimentation in order to find someone who sticks out.

Or rather, someone who doesn't stick out but does as the best defensive midfielders do - fluidly and, almost invisibly, acts as a shield for the back four and provides a link between the defensive and attacking phases. In the World Cup that role ended up masterfully filled by Morgan Brian. Not your traditional pick for the position in the mold of USWNT legend Shannon Boxx, a hard-nosed, crunching tackle player who personified the type of defensive midfielder of the late 90's and early 2000's, but instead a smooth midfielder with incisive vision and, as it turns out, exceptional positioning with the ability to both shield the back line and play with one-two passing rhythm that keeps play flowing.

Morgan Brian is only one player. As good as she is she's vulnerable to fatigue and has been nursing nagging injuries for much of the beginning of 2016. This busts wide open the question of depth at defensive midfielder for the Rio Olympics. Who deserves to have their name on that coveted final roster?

Enter Allie Long.

Say the name around NWSL fans and you're certain to get a reaction. Perhaps it's her single-minded and often very public devotion to making it to the top level in American women's soccer. Perhaps it's the sometimes eccentric on-field behavior. Or maybe it's because a strong argument can be made that Allie Long is the enduring face of one of the biggest - and most divisive - franchises in the NWSL, the Portland Thorns. Regardless, there aren't many people who don't have an opinion about Allie Long, especially when the question is whether she should make the final roster for Rio.

The argument shouldn't be whether or not Long deserves to make the roster over Morgan Brian. That's not the case. Instead, she's a convincing option to offer depth not only as a defensive midfielder but also as an attacking midfield option. With only 18 players going to Rio this could prove to be crucial cover.

The numbers are clear. Allie Long has done more than enough to be considered an elite player at the NWSL level. With a stalwart 65 appearances with the Thorns, Long has scored 22 goals and recorded 10 assists in that time. In context, 22 goals puts Long third all-time among NWSL leaders only behind the likes of Kim Little and Lauren Holiday. Both are considered world class midfielders in the women's game.

Name

Goals

Kim Little

27

Lauren Holiday

22

Allie Long

22

Sam Kerr

21

Jess McDonald

21

Carli Lloyd

21

Diana Matheson

20

Sydney Leroux

17

Christine Sinclair

17

Abby Wambach

17

So why is this even a question? The answer to that is complicated and mired in the not-so-distant past failures of American professional women's soccer. Splitting her college years between Penn State and University of North Carolina, Long signed with the Washington Freedom of WPS in 2009 out of college. She played in all three seasons that the WPS existed. Those years were mostly uneventful, scoring a mere seven goals in 57 appearances for two clubs, the Washington Freedom and Sky Blue FC. When WPS folded, Long headed overseas and signed a deal with Paris Saint-Germain where she was relatively more productive - scoring four goals in 12 appearances with the club.

The story of Allie Long is that of a late bloomer from a generation of women's soccer players who desperately suffered from a combination of the collapse of the WPS and the reign of former WNT manager Pia Sundhage. Sundhage's philosophy was structured around winning now with little emphasis on the next generation of players. This left a whole generation of players in the dust. So the start of the NWSL colliding with the hire of new WNT manager Tom Sermanni presented an interesting opportunity for players like Long. An opportunity to prove themselves back home finally existed again and, the cherry on top, there was a new manager to impress at the national team level.

With three goals and three assists in 22 appearances, 2013 is statistically Long's least productive year in the NWSL. It is also the year she became an NWSL champion and got her name back into the conversation though she was known more for persistent fouls and yellow cards that should have been rather than her prowess as a player.

2014 changed the story. In 22 appearances, Long notched nine goals and three assists while becoming the primary corner- and penalty kick-taker for the Thorns. She helped lead the Thorns to the playoffs, losing 2-0 in the semi-final to the eventual champions FC Kansas City. 2014 is the year that put Allie Long on the map. On May 8, 2014 she was capped for the first time by Jill Ellis in a 1-1 draw with Canada in Winnipeg. She would go on to make a few more appearances under Ellis in late 2014.

In 2015 she continued to put up stellar numbers in the NWSL - 10 goals and four assists in 20 appearances. Still she was left off the final World Cup roster and tasted disappointment once again. Instead of accepting that her shot was probably over Long set her sights on the Olympics and one more chance to make it. In comments made during the April 6 Colombia game, Long said she worked tirelessly after the 2015 season to ensure that she would be ready should Ellis give her a call.

Career NWSL Statistics (All with Portland Thorns)

Year

GP

Min

Goals

Assists

Shots

SOG

SOG %

YC

2013

22

1956

3

3

23

9

39

2

2014

22

1809

9

3

44

21

48

1

2015

20

1793

10

4

53

27

51

3

That call finally did come and Long, once again, made the most of an opportunity that she worked tirelessly to earn. In her start against Colombia on April 6, Long - an attacking midfielder by trade - look poised in that number 6 role. She appeared to be the natural continuation of the evolution of that position. Shannon Boxx she certainly isn't. It's time to let go of the era of the crunching defensive midfielder. Instead, players like Morgan Brian and Allie Long are a new brand of silky deep lying midfielders, defensive in their primary duties and not only willing but perfectly capable of linking up and joining into the attack with consistency, expected to contribute as much to defense as offense. Not for nothing Long scored two goals with her head in that match against Colombia, her first two and only in her fifth cap.

There are obstacles to Long's ascendency. Ellis has stated that she looks to the roster in Rio as a natural blueprint for the squad she'll name for the World Cup in France 2019. At 28 years old (29 by Rio), it's hard to argue that someone who will be 31 in 2019 is one for the future. Not when the competition is widely regarded to be 23-year-old Sam Mewis, who will still be only 26 years old in 2019.

In her first NWSL season in 2015, Mewis scored four goals and four assists in 20 appearances. Those numbers don't look too different from Long's first NWSL season. But they're not yet at the level that Long is currently producing. At this point in their careers Long is better poised to be able to make an immediate impact off the bench.

It's hard to argue that Long's inclusion wouldn't also be a giant win for a generation of women's soccer players caught in the void. Whether the statistical or moral victory is more your style, the numbers largely back Allie Long as a legitimate depth asset to help the WNT win gold in Rio.