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Stars From New York Red Bulls’ MLS And eMLS Squads Teamed Up For A Virtual Hudson River Derby

When Aaron Long leaves the New York Red Bulls to join the United States men’s national team — an event that has happened more and more frequently as he’s established himself as one of the top center backs for the red, white, and blue — he never finds himself in the room with all of his teammates playing FIFA. More frequently, Long squads up with his teammates who opt to play Fortnite.

One such Yank who has a reputation for being a formidable foe in EA Sports’ soccer simulation is Sean Johnson, the starting goalkeeper for Long’s club’s rivals, New York City Football Club. Add all of this together and when Long was asked about playing against Johnson as part of Major League Soccer’s eMLS Tournament Special, well, he didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity.

“I was really adamant about not doing it, especially because I was going to play my rivals, New York City FC, and I didn’t want to get a beat down from my rival team,” Long told Uproxx Sports over the phone. “But when they told me it was Sean John that I was going to play against, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s something I can get behind.’ We already have a really good relationship, me and him from the national team, so we knew that banter was going to be good and I don’t mind losing to a friend if I do end up losing.”

Still, Long wasn’t exactly put in an enviable situation. While he’s played FIFA in the past, it’s been quite some time — in addition to being more of a Fortnite guy, Long’s going to become a father in a few months, and opted to pack up his Xbox at the end of last year. The good news is he wasn’t alone in taking on NYCFC over the weekend. As part of the league’s FIFA tournament, players from the selected clubs would go head-to-head. Once that ended, the sticks would get passed to their club’s eMLS competitors, with the scores from the two games getting aggregated and the better club moving on.

Long got paired up with George Adamou, who came in eighth place in eMLS last year, his first with the club. Over the span of a few hour-long sessions, Long got a crash-course in how to play the game like a pro. They weren’t particularly competitive — Long said they were like Adamou “playing a newborn baby” — but they proved to be invaluable.

“I think people say it’s just like FIFA, but there’s a lot more things to it,” Adamou said. “There’s formations and instructions that I know about that Aaron may not know about, and you have to go set the tactics because in this game it actually really matters. So I think it’s really important to get on the same page and help Aaron learn about a lot of the things that he wouldn’t know since he hasn’t played the game regularly.”

Adamou made it a point to bring Long up to speed on the more specific details of the game quickly. Beyond getting his formation down and figuring out the best way to play within the latest version of FIFA, Adamou told Long to embrace some specifics — get his wingers in behind defenders, have players congregate in the box for crosses, and around the 60th or 70th minute, overload ball side in an attempt to win the ball off of his opponent.

It helped that both know how to play soccer — Long, of course, is a professional, while Adamou played in college before he began his eSports career, one that saw him become the top-ranked American in the FIFA 20 Global Series (like Long, he was a defender when he took the non-virtual pitch). This understanding of the game in one medium is something that Adamou believes is helpful in another.

“I think that you can’t possibly be good at the game without having a background of actually watching soccer because there’s so many … you have to know things like an offside trap, things that you wouldn’t know,” Adamou said. “You have to know how to balance your positioning on your offense, how people attack. Do they go from the wings? Do they cross? Do they go direct? I think that’s something that you would need to watch actual players do so you could replicate it on the field.”

Of course, understanding does not necessarily equal expertise, something the two learned first-hand when they played their foes from the Bronx. Long lost to Johnson, 3-0, while Adamou lost to a longtime eMLS foe, Chris “Didychrislito” Holly, 2-1. In an ironic twist, virtual Johnson came up big in both games, winning Man of the Match honors both times.

“I was kind of screwed there in terms of, I felt like I was on my own and Sean John was kind of toying with me a little bit,” Long said of the first half of his matchup, which due to technical difficulties did not include any coaching, as Adamou could not see his screen. “And he did score a couple of, I don’t want to say crap goals, but they weren’t great goals. I got a little bit unlucky, and then from there I just couldn’t recover. He also made some unbelievable saves, Sean John, with himself in the game. I had two breakaways and he had two unbelievable saves.”

Both guys admit that some more time training would have helped, and in the event that something like this happens again, they’d love nothing more than to get the opportunity to get a measure of revenge on Johnson and Holly — they went on to beat FC Dallas in the quarterfinals and punched their ticket to the semis, which will occur on May 17. And for Long, while it’s unclear when this opportunity will come about, he might have to step away from the Fortnite room the next time he’s with the national team.

“I was already thinking about that,” Long said when asked about playing FIFA against Johnson when they’re wearing the red, white, and blue. “Yeah, I need to see him in person. I think I might be able to get in his head a little bit better.”