Tonight, Orlando City will take the field against the Vancouver Whitecaps, a team that employs two former Orlando City defenders. These two former Lions can easily remind Orlando City fans of the struggles the team has had defensively over the past three years. Coincidentally, the trip coincides with the return of key City defensive players, providing hope that the defense can be a strength going forward.
For Orlando City’s inaugural MLS campaign in 2015, the team signed midfielder Brek Shea from Stoke City. It was a familiar face for the Lions as Shea had trained with the team during the 2014 season, the club’s final in USL Pro. While he had played on the wing for the majority of his career, former U.S. national team boss Jürgen Klinsmann and then-Orlando City Head Coach Adrian Heath both decided to try the 25-year-old at left back.
On July 21, 2016, the Lions acquired a new center back, José Aja, from Uruguayan club Nacional on a six-month loan with an option to buy. They exercised that option in December of that year, ensuring he would remain with the team for the 2017 season. Unfortunately, 2017 was a frustrating season for both Aja and the club. The Lions brought in three new center backs hoping to solve the issues that had plagued the team over the previous two seasons. However, they were unable to find someone to play consistently well alongside Jonathan Spector.
Prior to the 2017 MLS season, the Lions traded Shea to the Whitecaps for midfielder Giles Barnes. A year later, they traded Aja to the same team for $125,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). Both Shea and Aja have become regular contributors to the Whitecaps since moving north of the border with Shea playing in 25 of the team’s 34 games in 2017 and taking part in all 15 games this year, playing a midfield or forward role — and yes, also left back. In his first season in Vancouver, Aja has started 12 of the team’s 15 MLS games in 2018.
Tonight’s reunion coincides with Orlando City’s current core of defenders returning to health. To say that the Lions’ defense has struggled to stay on the field would be generous. Club captain Spector suffered a concussion during the first half of the team’s March 17 game against New York City FC and suffered a second concussion near the end of the next game he played in on April 8 against the Portland Timbers. His 45 minutes Wednesday night against Miami United FC was his first action since.
The other central defenders haven’t fared much better. Lamine Sané suffered a knee injury which has kept him out of full training since April and Chris Schuler broke his left arm against the Chicago Fire on May 26. Amro Tarek hasn’t been injured but was away as he was named to Egypt’s preliminary roster for the World Cup. The loss of defenders got so bad that last weekend’s game against NYCFC saw a center back pairing of midfielder Tony Rocha and outside back RJ Allen, both under six feet tall.
The game last weekend may have been the low point of available defenders, which also includes the absence of right back Scott Sutter who has been out since April 8, but appears to be getting better. Both Spector and Schuler played 45 minutes on Wednesday night for the first time since their injuries and appear to be close to a full return. Additionally, Tarek was not selected in the final 23 for Egypt which, while unfortunate for the 26-year-old, is welcome news for Orlando City.
For the first time in three league games, the Lions will likely have two natural central defenders starting and another on the bench. Having lost their last four MLS games and playing four of their next five away from home, the returning health for the Lions could not come at a better time.
When Orlando City takes the field tonight in Vancouver, the team sheets will likely include two former Lion defenders and, more importantly, three current City center backs. It will be a reminder of not only the struggles the defensive unit has had in the past, but hopefully the success that will come with healthy, quality defenders that can lift the Lions into the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in club history.