PORTLAND, Ore. – Watching Allie Long's three goals for Thorns FC this season, you could come up with a different word to describe each one of them: skilled, clinical, and fearless.
Through three matches in the nascent 2015 NWSL season, Long not only has three goals and an assist, but she has terrorized opposing defenses, making long, probing box-to-box runs and winning individual challenge after individual challenge.
But if Long's hot start to the 2015 NWSL season has proven anything, it's that Long is driven to prove her doubters wrong and she's found the perfect format in which to do so in head coach Paul Riley's tactical setup.
"I love being able to attack when it’s on and also when we rotate and maybe someone else can get through; I like to hold and create from the back," she said after the 1-0 victory against the Western New York Flash. "The No. 6 role, No. 8, or No. 10 role are all roles I really like to play in. Whatever is on and whoever is free is kind of the attacker and it’s a great set up."
Riley, too, believes that Long can play anywhere on the field and his trust in the Thorns midfielder has paid off handsomely so far this season.
"She’s great off the ball, she’s clever, she sees where the space is and she’s got two good feet," Riley said of Long. "Everyone says she’s a six or a holding mid, but I don’t think she is. I think she has a little bit more to give and she’s got a little bit more creativity to her."
Witness Long's second goal against the Boston Breakers, a Thorns 4-1 win, in which Long hovers just past the center circle, waiting for the right moment to spring past her defender. That moment comes when teammate Mana Shim sends a one-time pass over the Breakers' midfield and, just like that, Long is in alone on goal.
Long's growth as a player this season comes in part from Riley's coaching, but it also comes from an offseason spent training and competing with Spanish club Brenes Balompie, where her fiancé Jose Bautista plays.
Long believes that the time she spent training with Brenes dramatically improved her mental and physical fitness in the lead up to the 2015 NWSL season.
"I had to be sharp. I had to earn their respect from the first day, otherwise they wouldn't pass me the ball," she said of her Spanish teammates. "I had to be confident and just play like myself. It definitely helped me tactically, learning the game."
But Long wasn't just a trainee with Brenes Balompie; she integrated herself into the very fabric of the club's culture.
"I was basically a part of the team; I just didn't play in games," she said. "I had a locker, gear…They let me train every training session, 11v11, everything. A lot of times I was playing just one-touch or one or two touch because it's so quick.
I loved it."
This season, the sharpness to her game that Long honed in Spain has been evident both in her vision and passing and in her physical doggedness in front of goal.
Against the Flash, Long rose up over her defender and risked a collision with the Flash's goalkeeper in order to get to a floating cross from Thorns midfielder Sinead Farrelly. It was a hard-nosed goal from a player known more for crashing the box from midfield than for her work as a target forward.
But this season, Long seems not merely comfortable to play any role on the field, but happy to do so if it means making her a better player.
"I'm just getting better every day that I'm here," she said. "I can only control what I can control, so I'm just taking every training session like I'm preparing for a World Cup."
"I'm going to do that until I can go to one," she added with a laugh.
Thorns FC host the Washington Spirit May 9 at Providence Park (7pm PT, WEBSTREAM, TICKETS).