Jonathan Spector signed with Orlando SC this past January the way he
has done most things in his career, unobtrusively. There was little fanfare surrounding the acquisition but Spector is, after all, a player who has made a career in England and now in the United States out of fitting in.
That quality has served Spector and the first place Orlando SC well this season as the veteran has seamlessly stepped in to lead a defense badly in need of his calming presence.
GotSoccer had a chance to speak with Spector after Orlando’s win a week ago at Yankee Stadium. Cyle Larin, Orlando’s powerful young Canadian striker had led the way for the Lions with two goals while Spector marshaled a much-improved defense as Orlando picked up its first away win of the season.
Standing in the middle of a happy, winning locker room later that afternoon, I asked the 31-year-old MLS rookie for his impressions of the league.
“Yeah, obviously I’ve really enjoyed it,” Spector began. “In terms of quality of play, I’ve followed the league and knew a lot about it before coming in.” Differentiating his experience from that of a non-American coming into Major League Soccer Spector noted, “I think it’s very different (his transition) from a lot of players who have been playing in Europe are accustomed to. It’s a completely new transition for them whereas for me I’m from the States, I’ve got friends who are regularly playing in the league, former teammates, so I’ve always kept up with it and am very familiar with it so I think that’s what has made the transition for me so much easier.”
Indeed, Spector has fit in form day one, earning an MLS Team of the Week nod on his debut when Orlando opened the season with a 1-0 win over New York City SC. Two months later first place Orlando is sporting a 6-1-1 record while confirming the old axiom that says defense wins championships. It is a too soon to be printing up playoff tickets just yet but remember that the Lions finished in eighth place in 2016, just one point behind sixth-place Philadelphia, largely because of a poor defensive record.
Orlando outscored four of the six Eastern Conference playoff sides last season but a -5 goal difference proved to be the team’s undoing as Orlando sat out the postseason for the second year running.
The MLS season is only just unfurling but it is clear that this season’s +5 goal difference provides Orlando with a sturdy platform for the club’s playoff ambitions, particularly with the veteran Kaka back amongst the goals after missing time with an injury.
Central to Orlando’s improved defense in 2017 has been the burgeoning relationship between Spector and American U20 center back Tommy Redding. With that in mind, I asked Spector if he sees himself a mentor for the youngster.
“I have to say I do a bit. I was fortunate to have great players to learn from when I was growing up and coming through and learning and hopefully I can impart some of that on Tommy as well but he’s done exceptionally well, he’s a great player and I think he’s got a bright future.”
The pairing has flourished since Redding returned from helping the U.S win its first ever U20 CONCACAF championship, beating Mexico along the way. Redding took over from Uruguayan defender Jose Aja after Orlando suffered its lone loss of the season, 2-0 in Columbus on April 1.
Four wins and two shutouts later the Spector/Redding partnership would seem a success but with the U20 World Cup opening on May 20 in South Korea, Spector will be again be asked to adjust.
It shouldn’t be a problem for the striker cum central defender/fullback/ midfielder/central defender. I asked Spector about his versatility and if he would have preferred to have played the center back position more throughout his time in England.
“Yeah, I would have,” Spector confided. “I initially went over there as a central defender. When I first went to Manchester there were a number of injuries there and Ferguson asked me to play as a left back and when he asks you to do something,” Spector said with a slight chuckle, “you do it and it gave me my big chance there.”
“And then after that, I kind of got pigeonholed but got kind of stuck playing in that position and my preferred position has always been a central defender but I’ve always said I’m willing to do what’s best for the team, what the manager wants and asks of me.”
Although Spector was unable to break through at United, playing just three Premier League matches for the Red Devils, that philosophy would serve the American well as he continued his career away from the bright lights of Manchester, first with Charlton Athletic, still in the Premier League, on a one-season loan and then on to West Ham United.
Spector made 101 Premier League appearances, most with the Hammers where he spent quite a bit of time operating in the midfield. In time for the 2011-12 campaign, Spector dropped down a level to the English Championship to sign with Birmingham, splitting time between both fullback positions and his preferred central role before arriving in Orlando in January.
Perhaps it was that drop to the second tier, or maybe he was cursed by his versatility, whatever the reason Spector faded from the national team picture.
Given his stellar play for Orlando I asked Spector at Yankees Stadium if he has a national team recall in his sights? “Yeah,” Spector began thoughtfully. “That wasn’t my – I’ve been asked numerous times whether that was a reason for coming back and I have to say it wasn’t.” “Obviously,” Spector emphasized, “I’d love to be with the national team again and represent my country, it’s always a huge honor but at the same time my focus is with my club team and if that national team call-up happens, which I hope it does, then great.”
So until that call comes, if it does come, expect to find Jonathan Spector operating at the heart of the Orlando defense, mentoring younger teammates and steadying the Lions defense, always available to fill in wherever coach Jason Kreis needs him.
Fitting in, unobtrusively.