Only two states can boast about having 4 players on the 2022 U.S. Men’s World Cup squad – New York and California. Of the roster of 26, the only player with prior World Cup experience is DeAndre Yedlin, so chances are, their names are less than familiar to the casual soccer fan. Let’s meet the four Californian natives now representing the United States, and learn more about the journeys that led them to Qatar.
Thirty-year-old New York Red Bulls captain, Aaron Long, hails from Oak Hills where he played at UC Riverside from 2010-2013 and worked construction while in the USL before joining the Red Bulls second team in 2016. From there it was a quick trip to earning the title of 2018 MLS Defender of the Year for helping lead the Red Bulls to the Supporter Shield year.
Being a natural athlete in his youth, Long lettered in both football and fútbol, before settling on soccer in college. He also played for the USL PDL club FC Tucson during his junior and senior year in college. Fittingly, the centre-back’s favorite soccer player was former USMNT defender Carlos Bocanegra.
Long, potentially now a free agent, has made 175 appearances for New York across all competitions with 14 goals. His track record has translated over to his time with the U.S. MNT, where he has made an impression as a consistent leader since being called up in 2018, amassing a perfect record 5-0-0 in the matches he captained while aiding his teammates to a clean sheet in each of those matches. He also became the first defender to score a brace in a match during the 2019 Gold Cup 6-0 match against Trinidad and Tobago.
A successful World Cup campaign is crucial for Long who is on the precipice of accomplishing his dream of joining a league in Europe. West Ham, Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth have all expressed interest in the acquisition of the experienced and solid central defender, and the Red Bulls have promised an update on their stance on his contract renewal status in December. This international stage is the perfect venue for him to raise his value.
Luca de la Torre
San Diego native, Luca de la Torre, is currently a central midfielder with Celta de Vigo. Although he’s just 24-years-old, he has been honing his skills overseas since arriving to Craven Cottage when he was 15. He’s already been with Fulham FC, Heracles Almelo in the Netherlands, and is now in Spain’s La Liga. Growing up in San Diego, he played for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s Nomads Youth Soccer Club (2011-2012) and surf clubs there, while enjoying typical Southern California treasures like the San Diego Zoo and Legoland. The only child of two scientists – his mother received her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of California-San Diego and his father is professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute – he spent any free time he had training with his dad, who hails from the Spanish Canary Islands.
After his freshmen year at Torrey Pines High School, he signed with Fulham, following in the footsteps of a long line of U.S. MNT players who paved their own paths there, like Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride. Three years later, in 2016, de la Torre made his debut with them in the EFL Cup first round against Leyton Orient. At the international level, de la Torre played for the USMNT U-17s and U-20s before his debut with the senior team in 2018. Shortly before the 2020-21 season, he joined Heracles in the Dutch top league as a regular starter. But his career there ended at a low point for the team as Heracles was relegated from the Eredivisie. He then joined Celta this July, signing a four-year contract but has had just five appearances as a substitute for 54 minutes this season and has recently recovered from a hamstring tear in his left leg.
While that prevents him from being fit for a full 90-minutes, he’s talented at keeping possession which can help the USMNT as a substitute in Qatar.
“Football took me to school, to study and it also gives me food. I always had the motivation to become a professional and the truth is that it is a dream come true, although it has been difficult to get to where I am today, but with dedication and concentration everyone can do it.”
Cristian Roldán could have played for El Salvador, Guatemala or the United States. As a matter of fact, he turned down earlier offers from both El Salvador and Guatemala in order to focus on his career with the Seattle Sounders.
And what a successful career it’s been. The boy who grew up in Artesia and helped the University of Washington Huskies get a Pac-12 title in 2013, has appeared in over 250 matches for the Seattle Sounders since being selected in the first round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. He also helped them make four Cup Final appearances, win two MLS Cups, and a CONCACAF Champions League title. He was also named captain of the 2021 MLS All-Star team.
Roldán’s football roots run deep through his family. His father, Cesar, is from Guatemala, and mother, Ana, is from El Salvador. His mother and her relatives started his soccer lessons when he was just four-years-old.
Roldán’s older brother Cesar is the head athletic trainer for the LA Galaxy, and his younger brother Alex, is his teammate with the Seattle Sounders but Alex also plays for El Salvador. They’ve met once in competition and had to settle for a 0-0 draw.
He was first called up to U20 team for a friendlies played in Austria in 2015. Roldán debuted for the U.S. MNT in July 2017 at the CONCACAF Gold Cup and was part of the USMNT’s last three Gold Cup rosters, helping them win the championship in 2017 and 2021. He has two assists with them both in the 2021 Gold Cup. He made his World Cup Qualifying debut on Sept. 2, 2021 with El Salvador (against his brother).
Haji Wright, the sole USMNT player in Qatar from Los Angeles, was the most controversial of Gregg Berhalter’s roster choices. His selection over fan favorites Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok was a big surprise as the third striker sent a wave of skepticism through Twitter. Wright had been in just a single senior USMNT camp, scored a goal in his first cap against Morocco on June 1, but was omitted from the September’s friendlies. But the 24-year-old striker is friends with USMNT teammates Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie and they all played at the 2015 U17 World Cup.
“Haji is in great goalscoring form. They’re both physical strikers. Jordan maybe a little more so, but Haji has pace, he’s got the ability to go 1-v-1, he’s finishing with his head, both feet. And he’s performing really well,” Berhalter explained to reporters earlier last week.
He had a breakout season in 2021-22, scoring 15 goals in 35 matches, finishing among the Turkish Super Lig’s top scorers at Antalyaspor.
Wright’s soccer career officially began as an LA Galaxy Academy player who played in the 2013 Nike International Friendlies, a tournament featuring the United States, Portugal, England and Brazil. He won the tournament’s golden boot and training time with the Galaxy’s first team. The rising star of the U17 team next scored 18 goals in 22 games for the under-17s in 2014, including the winning goal in the Aegean Cup final, a 2-1 victory for the United States over host Turkey. He also helped the United States qualify for the U-17 World Cup this summer in Chile. His professional career began when he joined the New York Cosmos where he was further molded by Raúl, the career leading scorer for Real Madrid, and former Spain midfielder Marcos Senna. Before long, at age 18, he left for FC Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga where he played until 2019. In seven appearances, he scored one goal.
Afterwards, he moved to VVV-Venlo in the Netherlands for a season before joining Danish side Sonderjyske. And then in 2022, he struck the balance he was always searching for. On July 19, 2022, Wright signed a three-year deal with Antalyaspor and he hasn’t looked back.
From playing in his backyard with his brother to Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Turkey, and now in Qatar, Wright, like his fellow Californian USMNT teammates, may have been inspired by others but eventually forged his own path. Just as his childhood inspiration Kobe Bryant said, “Everything negative — pressure, challenges — is all an opportunity for me to rise.”