Jose Aja has had his fair share of miscues in recent weeks. Poor turnovers in the defensive end directly led to fantastic chances against D.C. United and Montreal Impact. Poor positioning by the entire Orlando City defense has led to a porous last five matches — they’ve allowed 11 goals during that stretch — and while Aja wasn’t on the field for the 4-0 drubbing in Chicago, he’s earned deserved ire for some mental mistakes. After starting the season as part of Head Coach Jason Kreis’ preferred center back partnership, Aja has seen some pressure from the recovering Tommy Redding in recent weeks.
But it’s Aja that has the chance to take over this Friday’s inaugural match against Atlanta United. He’ll need to be effective on both ends of the pitch if the Lions want to walk away the victors, both in stopping a lightning-quick United attack and being a focal point on set pieces on both ends for Orlando.
The Lions have struggled against quicker attacks this year. Houston tore the defense apart en route to a 4-0 victory, Gerso Fernandes did most of the work in the draw with Sporting Kansas City, and David Accam got his first MLS hat trick against Orlando just last month. Atlanta has the biggest combination of speed that City has seen since the Dynamo back in May. The combination of Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron, and Josef Martinez has racked up enough goals to lead the league up to this point. Most of those have come on the breakaway, trying to release their speedsters and with Tommy Redding dealing with plantar fasciitis and just getting back to training last week, Aja and Jonathan Spector are the likeliest candidates to line up in central defense for the Lions.
It’s a daunting task for Orlando’s defense to take on one of the highest-flying offenses in the league and if City plays a high line it could mean a long night in Orlando City Stadium. It will partially be on Orlando’s midfield to break up the Atlanta attack before it can get the outlet passes to the forwards, but Aja and Spector will need cool heads to make the clutch tackles in the defensive third. But the visitors’ attack can largely be one-dimensional and if they can’t make a break for it, they struggle to break down defenses.
Limiting the space that Atlanta can run into can neuter the United attack. And Atlanta has proven that it needs to score in open play. Thirty-three of the team’s 39 goals have come from the run of play this year and only D.C. and the Chicago Fire have fewer goals from set pieces this year.
It’s because Atlanta has a big disadvantage in height, especially along the back line. The Georgia outfit has allowed four goals off set pieces this season, middle of the pack for MLS, but Atlanta has a definite disadvantage when it comes to dealing with physical aerial threats. Both starting central defenders — Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez — are several inches shorter than Aja and the big Uruguayan has proven that he’s a threat even if he hasn’t officially found the back of the net yet. Jose scored what looked to be the winning goal against SKC that was ruled out of play by the assistant referee and nearly had the opener against Real Salt Lake if not for the crossbar.
Aja is Atlanta’s biggest nightmare when it comes to set pieces and Orlando has proven it can deliver — the Lions are fourth in the league with eight goals scored from dead-ball deliveries. Between Kaká and Will Johnson, Orlando has weapons from just about anywhere on the pitch to provide service into the area.
Jose will have opportunities on both ends of the pitch to deliver for Orlando City on Friday night. Whether he needs to make a crunching tackle on Atlanta attackers or be an offensive weapon, Aja has the potential to make his mark on this match.