Amid all of the excitement of the MLS transfer and trade deadline for the summer, there was a bit of somber news for Orlando City. Jonathan Spector, the anchor of the Lions’ defense, left training on a golf cart with a sprained LCL. He could be sidelined for the rest of the month, which just so happens to include a few matches crucial to Orlando’s playoff bid.
While Orlando has adequate defensive depth in Tommy Redding and Leo Pereira, both are still incredibly young. Including Jose Aja, the incumbent starter next to Spector, the average age for the three central defenders expected to be in the match day squad is 21.6 years old. They’ve combined for just over 50 MLS starts over the past three years.
The inexperience is the biggest factor when it comes to losing Spector. All three of the young guns have made critical errors this season that have led to goals, whether it’s due to a lack of spatial or situational awareness or rash challenges that spring attackers free. It’s a natural learning curve that young players face, but in the thick of a playoff run with contests against the Lions’ direct competitors, young mistakes could sink their playoff chances.
Now is the time where young players grow up and make names for themselves. With the pressure mounting for Orlando City to win now, there’s a lot riding on the shoulders of Aja, Redding, and Pereira. With match-ups coming up against some of the most talented forwards in the league like Bradley Wright-Phillips, Ola Kamara, and Fredy Montero, there won’t be an easing-in period. Luckily enough for the Lions, Redding has been thrown into the fire before and has lived up to the challenge. While he still makes some 20-year-old mistakes, he’s stood up to attackers like Jozy Altidore and won.
It helps that Redding is the most natural replacement for Spector’s skill set. He’s by far the best on the ball of the healthy center backs and will help connect the defense and midfield much better than Aja or Pereira can. With Orlando’s recent trend of giving the ball up in dangerous areas, having Redding is crucial for the Lions’ success. His pairing with Aja earlier this season didn’t end well — Orlando was blown out by Houston 4-0 — but it was also on the end of two away games in a week and saw exhausted legs out of the pairing’s fullback help. With just a few days of preparation after Spector’s injury, it will be a test of their communication on Saturday against the Red Bulls, who will throw a variety of attackers at the City defenders. Playing on the road in the hostile environment of Red Bull Arena is already a daunting task.
It’s going to be rocky for the young trio over the next few weeks. But they have a chance to make their mark on the starting lineup — or for Pereira, a chance at a permanent deal after his loan spell ends — while Spector is on the sidelines. Now is the time for the young defenders to grow up and put their stamp on Orlando City’s season.