Orlando City brought in Jonathan Spector to bolster a defense that proved unable to close out games last season. Fans hope that this year will bring results that eluded Orlando in its first two seasons as an MLS franchise: a playoff spot.
In Sunday’s opener, Orlando’s defensive resolve looked and felt different. Jason Kreis called for the team to be more committed in defensive duties this preseason, and the new signings looked committed to the cause. Will Johnson, Giles Barnes, and Donny Toia had great debuts for the club last weekend, but Spector was at the heart of Orlando’s strong defensive showing in the first game of the year. Hopefully, his steely performance on Sunday was a preview of what fans can expect this season.
Spector’s first game as a Lion was an English-styled, no-nonsense defensive effort. Any danger was simply cleared out; not only did Spector lead the team in clearances, but also led the league in the category in Week 1, logging 13 clearances, seven with his head. Spector’s positioning throughout the match was excellent. He didn’t need to make multiple recovery runs or lunge into risky challenges. He well-timed tackles when needed and only conceded one foul in the game. Spector’s superior positioning and anticipation kept dangerous attacks in front of him for most of the match.
After Kaká’s early exit and Cyle Larin’s goal, Orlando assumed a more defensive shape. While it would have been nice to see Orlando continue to press NYCFC after taking the lead, the goal did give Spector and the rest of the defense a lead to fight for for the remainder of the match. But what’s different about this year is that this type of game seemed to suit many Orlando players, especially Spector. He looked comfortable organizing the defense and playing spoiler rather than creator. Orlando, with the help of Joe Bendik, sat in and proved too difficult for NYCFC to breakdown.
Relying on this tactic comes with risk, and Orlando was fortunate not to give up a late goal. Kreis will want to see the team retain more possession as the season unfolds and players get back to full form. Spector’s strengths in organizing and positioning will need the balance of a partner who is comfortable in possession.
José Aja, an unsung hero in the opening win, might just be the player to pair with Spector, as we saw Sunday. Spector’s presence in the back four made Aja better. Spector and Aja were positioned well throughout the match and didn’t get stretched, which happened quite a few times to Orlando’s defense last season. The pair also played to each other’s strengths: Aja completed more passes than Spector, while Spector competed for more aerial challenges and made more clearances. The partnership is still a work in progress, but it has plenty of promise.
Spector will make mistakes during this season, but fans now know what to expect from the former Manchester United defender. Don’t look for Spector to orchestrate attacking moves from defense; it’s not his strength. Orlando has plenty of players who can move the ball, even out of the back. What the team has been missing is defensive organization and a player who takes pride in a clean sheet. After Sunday, Spector looks like the man for the job.