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Are David Mateos and José Aja Orlando City’s Answer at Center Back?

They have an impressive four points in two starts against some of the top teams in MLS. Have the Lions found the answer to their defensive woes?

MLS: New York City FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

José Aja and David Mateos have only started two matches as Orlando City’s center back partnership, but they have only conceded a single goal in 180 minutes against two of the best teams in MLS. With the Lions’ habit of giving up multiple goals per game, Jason Kreis may have just found the two men to man the middle.

He called upon them on an away trip to Colorado, sitting comfortably near the top of the Western Conference, and then again at home to New York City FC, who are battling Toronto FC for the East’s top spot. While the clean sheet against a middling Rapids squad may not be quite so impressive, holding the high-flying NYCFC to a goal off a rebound in a victory may have cemented their position. If anyone was at fault for New York City’s lone goal, it was Luke Boden who may have been able to close out Steven Mendoza before he could get to it. Orlando has long needed a solution to its weakness at the back and, while it is still a small sample size, David and José have risen to the challenge twice in two contests.

On paper, Aja and Mateos are the perfect complement.

Mateos has the ball skills to jumpstart the attack from the back and Aja can be the enforcer in the middle. They both managed to win their aerial duels and didn’t let a potent NYC team threaten Bendik as much as we’ve seen so far this season. There’s also the lack of a language barrier between the Uruguayan and Spaniard, which is crucial for Aja only being stateside for a few months. The seemingly perfect partnership on paper has translated to success on the field. NYCFC could only turn four shots on target, while Colorado could only manage one. For a team needing results down the stretch, these two building a partnership could be the thing that sparks Orlando City’s playoff push.

There’s the curious case of Tommy Redding to consider, though. Kreis deployed him as a fullback to deal with David Villa and shore up the Lions’ right side. The young Homegrown Player was the rock at the back for Orlando until he injured his hamstring against FC Dallas at the beginning of July. Redding and Mateos fill the same needs and Adrian Heath preferred the young American to Mateos for most of the season. Redding is one of Orlando’s best defenders in one-on-one situations, which is why he proved crucial as the right back on Sunday.

If Kreis is trying to put the best defense on the field, having Mateos, Aja, and Redding on the pitch makes sense. What doesn’t make sense for Kreis’ system is utilizing Redding as a fullback. He can’t get up and down the field and help out Kevin Molino like Kevin Alston or Rafael Ramos, but he’s miles ahead of either on the defensive end. It doesn’t make much sense to bench Redding in favor of the up-and-down Alston when it comes to results, but playing three center backs affects the balance of the squad.

It may seem tempting to try a formation with three central defenders with all three on the pitch. After all, Orlando is already built to make the most out of it. They have enough depth with six central defenders on MLS contracts in Aja, Mateos, Redding, Seb Hines, Conor Donovan, and Devron Garcia. Almost all of Orlando’s fullbacks would benefit from having more defensive help behind them in the event that they get caught forward or make a mistake or bad turnover, allowing them to focus more on the offensive end. But this would change the makeup of the midfield in front of the defense, most likely breaking up the attacking trio of Kaká, Matías Pérez-García, and Molino that has proven so effective when they are all starting and playing similar roles. Kaká has had a renaissance on the left wing and asking him to pick up more defensive responsibilities would be taxing on the veteran when the Lions need him fresh for the home stretch. So, in all likelihood, one of Mateos or Redding will have to take a backseat as the season rolls on to its conclusion.

If Mateos and Aja continue to produce results, the third wheel looks like Tommy. It may be a sad sight for the Orlando City faithful, but until proven otherwise Mateos and Aja look like the answer in defense for the Lions.