For the first time this season, Jason Kreis has access to four MLS-ready center backs. Injuries, international call-ups, and in-season acquisitions, have meant that Kreis has been working with, at the most, three players to choose from for the two starting positions. In spite of the lack of choice, Orlando’s defensive center has stepped up to the challenge more times than not. Now that four players are available, which two players give Orlando City its stingiest defense?
What we do know is that Jonathan Spector is the heart of Orlando City’s back line. The former Manchester United defender has played in all but two matches, racking up 1170 minutes for the Lions (keep in mind, Spector played 22 matches in the ’16-’17 season for Birmingham City before joining the Lions).
His influence is a major reason that the Lions have been able to change their defensive identity this year. Spector is the team’s best player when it comes to anticipating dangerous passes; according to WhoScored.com, he has made 30 interceptions, which leads the team. He also leads the team with 25 aerial battles won. As long as Spector stays healthy, he is one of the first names on the team sheet each week because of his ability to read and break up attacking moves.
As for the second center back position, it seems that Jose Aja and Tommy Redding have the edge on the second spot. Both players have improved this year. Part of their growth can be attributed to Spector’s positive influence. Aja and Redding are young and athletic, but great defenders read the game and anticipate attacking moves—something that Spector can help the younger players with. To be fair, both players have looked up to the challenge when handed a starting spot, and neither player has hurt his cause this season. Most of the switches in starts have been due to availability.
The only significant difference, when you look at each player’s stats, is that Redding makes more interceptions while Aja wins more tackles. In seven appearances, Redding has made seven tackles, 14 interceptions, and won nine of 15 aerial battles. Aja has made 14 tackles, nine interceptions, and won 16 of 22 aerial battles in eight appearances this season. Spector averages 1.2 tackles a game compared to Aja’s 1.8 and Redding’s 1 per game. This looks like an insignificant amount, but when you look at the total number of tackles made by Aja (14) to Spector’s 16 in only eight matches, he appears to add more balance when paired with Spector. Of course, what the stats do not say is whether Spector wins fewer tackles because he reads the game well and does not need to win as many tackles. This is a case where the numbers may only tell part of the story.
The dark horse for Orlando’s second center back spot is Leo Pereira. Pereira has been given a chance to earn a spot with Redding on international duty and with a busy match schedule. Like Aja and Redding, Pereira has performed well when given his chance, and he was part of Sunday night’s “Remember the Alamo” defensive performance. He has made seven successful tackles in 10 attempts, nine interceptions, and won four of five aerial duels. In five fewer games, he has as many interceptions as Aja. If he continues to produce stats like that, there is no reason he cannot challenge Aja and Redding for a starting spot next to Spector.
Unfortunately, Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match is unlikely to reveal too much insight into Jason Kreis’ preference at center back. Spector will most likely get a rest to maximize the international break the team is already on. Does Pereira get another opportunity to prove his recent performances are not an aberration? Will Redding get playing time after returning from the U-20 World Cup?
Spector settles half of the center back pairing at the moment, but, beyond that, Kreis has three options that are each making a strong case for inclusion. Having options has been important up to now with injuries, players needing a rest, and international duty. As the season progresses and the added games of the U.S. Open Cup enter the schedule, Orlando looks prepared to navigate a busy schedule and inevitable injuries at the center back position. But if all four players are available, which pairing do you prefer?