Much like springtime, hope always springs eternal in the early months of a footballing season. Teams that have been terrible for years are suddenly good, players that no one has heard of are suddenly ‘can’t miss’ prospects, and legends whose better days were once thought gone are suddenly reborn.
This season’s pleasant surprise seems to have come in the form of Orlando City SC midfielder Kaká. The 32-year-old Brazilian wizard has quietly had a brilliant start in Major League Soccer, scoring two goals in his first four matches. His goal against the Montreal Impact showed a player who looks very different from the one going through the motions with AC Milan:
While it may seem odd to be shocked that Kaká would be anything less than a quality player, MLS supporters have heard this song and dance before. For every Kaká or Robbie Keane there is a Denilson or Lothar Matthäus – players who come to MLS looking to make some quick money at a much lower tax rate and enjoy the night life.
For years the perception was that a player could come to MLS, kick a few balls around, sign a couple of autographs and then bolt. For years MLS supporters have been spoon fed the same tired line that “x” player is here to make soccer in America relevant. While some have certainly made an impact – Keane, David Beckham, Carlos Valderrama spring to mind – many, many others have failed.
Kaká seems to be different. Although Kaká and his new team, Orlando City SC, arrived into the league at the same time as Frank Lampard, David Villa, and New York City FC they have been a bit quieter than their noisy neighbors to the north.
Perhaps it is because of the cities themselves – Orlando is generally known for Disney and vacationing, whereas New York City is, well, New York City. Or it could be because Kaká was signed during the World Cup year and opted to play for Sao Paulo last year rather than go back to AC Milan. Whatever the case the 2007 Ballon d’Or winner has flown under the radar this season.
That is not necessarily a bad thing for Orlando City. Although Orlando City’s history dates back to 2009 and includes two USL Pro titles, the third division of US Soccer, this is a very different squad from those teams.
From their 2014 roster, only seven players made the jump up to MLS – defenders Tyler Turner, Tommy Redding, Rafael Ramos and Luke Boden, and midfielders Darwin Ceren, Harrison Heath, Estrela, and Kevin Molino. With the exception of Boden, all of these players are under the age of 25. The rest of their roster comes from players who were drafted in the Expansion Draft or were signed in the off-season.
The main holdover that was not mentioned is coach Adrian Heath. Heath, who played professionally for 18 years in England and won the FA Cup with Everton in 1984, has coached the side since they were known as the Austin Aztex in 2009.
Thus far he seems to have Orlando City playing as one team, as the squad has a record of one win, one draw and two losses.
Of course having Kaká helps. Beyond the goals, it is his decision-making early on that has helped Orlando. With a very young, raw team Orlando has relied on Kaká to judge when the team needs to attack and when they need to hold back
Orlando possesses some extremely talented attacking options in wing-back Brek Shea and forwards Carlos Rivas (formerly of Deportivo Cali) and Bryan Rochez (Honduran international).
The problem that expansion teams seem to have in MLS is that because their players have not played with one another for an extended period they often do not have a strong understanding of their teammates abilities.
This can be offset by having a veteran as a center midfielder who can act as a field general, essentially giving directions while the game is going on. That has been Kaká’s main role for Orlando City early this season.
The question for Kaká and Orlando City is if they can keep up their form? Kaká has just one full season over his past four years (2013-2014 with Milan) and will be asked to at times do more than his fair share. The club has already been devastated by injuries this season and will likely lose Shea for the summer as he plays in the 2015 Gold Cup for the USA.
But all hope is not lost for Orlando City. Thanks to MLS weak playoff system, where six teams out of each conference makes the playoffs, teams can go through bad injury stretches and still have a chance to win the MLS Cup.
If Kaká can continue this run of form then Orlando City may join the Chicago Fire as the only team to win the MLS Cup in their first season. That would certainly give Orlando City’s Lions some teeth in their new league.