When Michael Boxall heard his Minnesota United center back partner, Ike Opara — the reigning MLS Defender of the Year — wouldn’t join the team in Orlando for the MLS is Back tournament, his initial reaction wasn’t quite fit for print.
But essentially: His team was in big trouble.
Fans and pundits alike might have been doom and gloom about United’s chances without Opara, because of his strong defending and goal-scoring potential, but the Loons had a much smoother journey through the group stage than many had anticipated. They accumulated five points before heading into Tuesday night’s knockout-round match against the Columbus Crew SC.
That has a lot do with who took Opara’s place in the starting lineup: Jose Aja.
The 27-year-old Uruguayan has experienced one of the strangest first seasons with a team. He joined in mid-February, fairly late in the offseason. United coach Adrian Heath needed more center back depth, in part with Brent Kallman finishing up a 10-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. More recently, Opara has battled some health issues, including a pre-existing condition that kept him from the tournament.
Aja spent only about a month with the team before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the season, forcing him to train on his own in his apartment. By the time play resumed, Opara’s absence had thrust him into a starting role.
“If you looked at the depth chart maybe when he first joined us, he probably wouldn’t have thought he was going to be in this position,” winger Ethan Finlay said. “… There was an opportunity and opening, and to his credit, he’s taken it. And I don’t think he has any desire to give that up.”
Heath and Aja nearly crossed paths in 2016. Heath, then coaching with Orlando City SC, said he was “instrumental” in bringing Aja to MLS before he lost his job. Aja played one more season in Orlando before moving to the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2018.
“I really enjoyed my time playing in this league when I was in Orlando and Vancouver,” Aja said in Spanish through a translator. “And so when I spent the last season in Chile, I always knew that if the opportunity ever came, that I could return to the MLS. I wouldn’t think twice about it. So when the opportunity presented itself with Minnesota, I grabbed on to it, and I’m very excited to be here.”
Aja added that his teammates and coaches have “welcomed him with open arms.” Per Boxall, Aja hangs out a lot with the other South Americans on the team, including fellow Uruguayan Thomas Chacon. Finlay said Aja’s English is good, though he is likely more comfortable speaking it around teammates than media.
That’s helped Aja and Boxall start forming their back line partnership, to which communication is paramount.
“Just having small conversations about each other’s tendencies, how we like to play. He likes to keep things simple as well,” Boxall said. “… I mean, it’s not really something that you can hurry along. It comes with time, and I think even with myself and Ike, it took us quite a few games to get that going last year. … You want it to work instantly. But you know it’s going to take time.”
Boxall added Aja is good at covering, has a great long ball and is strong in the air, thanks to his 6-4 frame. Finlay said he wouldn’t be surprised if Aja found himself scoring some set piece goals this season.
“He’s great in both boxes, very brave, doesn’t shirk any challenge,” Heath said. “… If he’s undecided what he should do, he puts his foot through it and then we’ll discuss it later. … He’s come in and done terrific for us. We’re really pleased with him.”
Off the field, Finlay called Aja a “gentle giant.” Left back Chase Gasper said in a team-conducted interview that Aja is “one of the nicest, greatest people” he’s ever met.
While Aja still is finding his place on the team, he’s filling Opara’s void with help.
“When one player leaves the team, it’s never just one player that’s going to fill in for them completely. It’s a team effort,” Boxall said. “So when you’ve got three other players around us, like obviously Ozzie [Alonso] in front is massive for us. And Romaine [Metanire] on Ike’s/Jose’s side, he’s been playing out of his mind ever since he’s been here. So he’s the best right back in the league.
“To be surrounded by those kind of players, it makes it easy.”