A week after making his first MLS appearance for Orlando City as a second-half substitute against the Chicago Fire, Uruguayan defender Jose Aja made his first start for the club on Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Aja played 76 minutes before making way for Tommy Redding, helping the Lions to their third clean sheet of the season — and the first since July 8, at home against the Houston Dynamo, which was also a 0-0 draw.
The 23-year-old was brought in by Orlando City just over a month ago on a six-month loan with the option to buy. Originally courted by the club while Adrian Heath was in charge, the Lions finished the signing after bringing in Jason Kreis, creating an interesting situation as to how the new coach would work his new player into a lineup he’s already trying to figure out.
Kreis told reporters last week that while Aja showed obvious potential in training, and getting him game minutes was the most important thing as he continues to address his group heading into the off-season.
"He’s got some qualities that we really like," Kreis said prior to the Chicago match. "Ultimately we’re going to need to see that play out in a match, and that will be the consideration between here and the end of the season — which matches we can get him involved in so we can have a proper evaluation of him heading into the off-season. But I do think there’s a possibility that he comes and plays for the first team and does a good job. I think it’s there for him."
Aja didn’t play in any of his first three games with the club, but has seen the field twice since then.
While the coaching change has made for some big changes at the club since Aja’s arrival, he doesn’t see those changes as something that makes his objective as a defender any different: to stop goals.
"Obviously, I think the whole team is adjusting," Aja said last week at training. "But at the end of the day, for me, a player, most coaches have always asked the same of me. Defensively the game doesn’t change, so I feel pretty good of coming in here knowing I can deliver on what they’re asking for.
"As a team we’re all working on strengthening our defensive line. It’s something that the players and the coaches are hammering in. We need to work on obviously not letting as many goals go through, so it’s just an important thing we do at training."
The defense, of course, has been the Lions’ biggest issue this season. Injuries and suspensions have contributed to constant changes on the back line, as well as showing off the club’s lack of depth in the back. Aja’s emergence as a possible impact defender could be a big plus for Orlando City, especially if Kreis continues to utilize him in the starting lineup.
At just 23 years old, he and Redding could make a dynamic center back pairing for years to come.