Orlando City SC entered the 2017 Major League Soccer season with an urgent need to address: improve a defense that conceded 116 goals over the course of 68 matches in the last two years. After four MLS games, the Lions seem to be in a good shape, as the team has the third-most effective defense in the league, with only three goals conceded and two clean sheets so far.
Obviously, four games (and three at home) are not enough to take definitive conclusions from, as a lot will happen between now and October, but it is undeniable that Orlando City’s defense already looks more solid than it did before. But how did it happen?
Arguably, the main reason for Orlando’s defensive stability is the addition of Jonathan Spector. The former U.S. Men’s National Team center back brought 13 years of experience in England and much-needed vocal leadership to the team’s back line, in addition to 8.5 clearances and 2.8 interceptions per match, according to WhoScored.com.
“I would say he’s critical. Absolutely critical”, Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the Lions defeated the New York Red Bulls last Sunday. “We’ve played four matches now and I think he’s been outstanding in all four. He’s a very consistent performer who is leading the back line and it’s exactly what we went into the off-season looking for. So, I’m really, really pleased that I think we got that one right.”
But Spector is not doing the entire job by himself. His sidekicks, José Aja and Tommy Redding, both showed encouraging progress this season and are connecting pretty well with the veteran. Aja was the unsung hero in the home-opening 1-0 win over New York City FC and averaged 5.3 clearances and one tackle in three matches before he injured his hamstring, while Redding was not afraid to start against the New York Red Bulls and amassed eight clearances, four interceptions and two tackles last match.
“He’s showing us through the training sessions, the work he’s done in the preseason, his performances with the under-20s, and the match he played with OCB a few weeks back that he’s becoming a more experienced and composed player,” Kreis said after Sunday’s game. “He still has a long way to go. For me, I think the potential of Tommy Redding is absolutely sky high, and he’s not even scraping it yet.”
However, we cannot forget that the Lions’ center backs are also getting valuable help from the fullbacks. On the left side, Donny Toia is proving to be a solid addition, with three clearances and 2.3 tackles per game so far. On the opposite side, Will Johnson did a good job out of position, averaging five clearances and four tackles over three matches as a right back, while Scott Sutter recorded six clearances, three interceptions and two tackles in his lone start so far.
And let’s not forget Joe Bendik. The 27-year-old goalkeeper finished last season in really great shape and is keeping the momentum in 2017. Bendik has already recorded 11 saves, including some really important ones, and two clean sheets. It is for good reason that he got a three-year extension with the club.
It is interesting to note that from the six field players who were part of the Lions’ back line in 2017 so far, four are new signings for the 2017 season. Apparently, the team’s front office did a good job identifying and bringing the right players to build the defense.
The defensive stability is clearly very important and it’s easy to understand that when you look at the standings. Orlando City has one of the least effective offenses in the league so far (scoring the same four goals D.C. United and the Colorado Rapids did) but sits second on the Eastern Conference thanks to its steady defensive work.
With 30 regular season games yet to happen, it’s fair to say that a lot of new challenges will be presented to the Lions’ new back line. Let’s see how they meet them and if the team’s Achilles’ heel will really become its most valuable an asset in 2017.