Newcomer Jonathan Spector conducted a masterclass in last-ditch tackles, recognizing runs, and saving the day. Joe Bendik was his old self, heroically stopping shots and being the stalwart last line of defense. Donny Toia was billed as advertised, winning his solo duels with pacy wingers Jack Harrison and Khiry Shelton. Even Will Johnson, playing out of position at fullback, made his fair share of key plays that stifled the NYCFC attack.
But a defense is only as strong as its weakest link and, on paper, that weak link looked to be José Aja. That was through no fault of his own — after all, every other member of the defense boasted a score of matches in MLS (or the Premier League, in Spector’s case); they had been here before on an opening day, had dealt with the adrenaline and excitement. The 23-year-old Aja was making just his 11th appearance in MLS on Sunday against last year’s most productive offense in the league, having to mark a forward who has played at the height of the game and proven that he is one of the deadliest finishers in MLS in David Villa.
But Aja impressed. There are naturally still kinks to work out, but he showed every bit of why the club offered him a four-year contract in the off-season.
Looking at the statistics can be deceiving; José only completed 58.8% of his passes and made fewer clearances and recoveries than his center back partner. But the majority of his misplaced passes were long balls lobbed well up the field (and one even connected in the NYCFC penalty area) with a high degree of difficulty for any player, let alone a central defender. And while he may not have been in positions to shut down Villa as often as Spector was, his positioning alone was enough to save several chances from even occurring.
City fans have seen Aja’s type before: A big, physical defender that likes to lurk higher up the field and break up plays with crunching tackles. Aurélien Collin became a fan favorite doing that same thing in 2015. But the biggest difference between Aja and Collin is that José knew when to try and break up an attack high up the field and when to drop deeper and wait for reinforcements. When Collin would often roam out of position to be a hero, he exposed his fellow defenders, opening channels for the opposing forwards to run into and freely challenge the defense. And while Aja wasn’t perfect in that regard — several times attackers got through for one-on-one situations with Bendik — he was disciplined in holding the shape of the defense and minimizing threats.
As even further credit to him, he did not concede a foul all match. He was calm, cool, and collected for such a young player thrust into an intense and emotional atmosphere.
For an Orlando City back line full of question marks, Aja was a big one. His limited appearances after signing with the team late last season did not paint a complete picture of his potential. Now, all eyes are on him after beating out veterans Seb Hines and David Mateos to be a lock in the starting lineup. He has the opportunity to answer those questions and prove to the fans what he has already proven to Jason Kreis: that he’s one of the center backs of the future. For a back line that has been looking for a linchpin, Aja made an argument for himself, even though it may have been overshadowed by his teammates. It’s a more-than-promising sign for a defense that has been haphazard for the last two seasons.
But the coming spell of matches won’t be easy. With Kaká now sidelined for at least six weeks, the onus will be on the defense to keep the scoreline manageable for the offense. And while the spotlight will shine brightest on Bendik and Spector, Aja will be there right alongside them doing the little things that don’t show up on the box score or the highlight reels.