Signing Jonathan Spector was Orlando City SC’s biggest move to strengthen its back line in 2017. After the veteran’s arrival, though, one question was presented to Head Coach Jason Kreis: who would be his ideal partner in central defense?
Jose Aja was the first to have a shot, but he just had three matches with the team, including a huge performance against New York City FC in the season opener, before the Uruguayan was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
The 24-year-old center back missed five matches while injured and, when he returned to action, looked one step behind where he was before. Apparently out of form, Aja made some key mistakes and saw his starting role challenged by Tommy Redding and Leo Pereira, who had replaced him when he was out.
After sitting on the bench in two straight matches, Aja had another opportunity against Real Salt Lake last Friday and made the most of it, being arguably the best player of the field in the Lions’ 1-0 road win.
“I’m happy to be back in the starting lineup. I feel I did good and helped the team to get the three points,” he said after the match.
Aja’s performance was indeed crucial to Orlando City’s win. The defender recorded eight clearances, four recoveries, one tackle, a block, and a recovery, and also played a major role in Will Johnson’s goal by heading the ball into the crossbar before the midfielder scored.
“I thought he was excellent,” Kreis said of the Uruguayan after the match. “Really well-played game by him. He was in the right spot to make critical defensive plays. Never got caught on the ball. He was superb.”
Aja’s main asset is his physicality, as his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame is a good complement to Spector, who is 6-foot and 167 pounds, using more his positioning than his strength. The duo can mix up well, as they did in the beginning of the season, and make of Orlando’s defense its biggest weapon against its rivals.
“At some point in the season we're all going to go through ups and downs and that’s why we're a team,” midfielder Servando Carrasco added. “After those two not-so-sharp performances by him he bounced back and he trained hard, he's been positive this entire time so to see him play so well tonight, we're all so happy for him.”