Orlando City is about to come to a crossroads. There’s a deadline fast approaching that will impact the club’s immediate future from a competitive and marketability standpoint. Kaká’s contract is almost up.
When Orlando City was still a USL outfit, they made headlines around the soccer world by signing 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Ricardo Kaká to a 3.5 year contract. Two and a half of those years will be up after the full-time whistle on Sunday and the countdown timer will begin on whether or not the Brazilian will remain in purple for 2018.
Kaká certainly has his options elsewhere, first and foremost hanging up his boots after an illustrious career winning almost every major trophy imaginable. No one could blame him for retiring after fulfilling his contract with Orlando. He didn’t treat MLS as a retirement league and instead wanted to be an ambassador for a growing game. He has been the pinnacle of professionalism off the pitch. There was never a public dispute with the organization like we’ve seen recently with Didier Drogba. He never left the country midseason to be a commentator elsewhere like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard did. He wore the armband with pride and represented the Lions well.
He hasn’t been bad on the field, either. He hasn’t set the league on fire like Sebastian Giovinco but he’s tallied 17 goals and 15 assists in 51 league appearances. His numbers aren’t what you’d expect from the highest-paid player in league history. While his salary was never solely about statistics and results, there would almost certainly be a dip in his income. And the fact of the matter is that Kaká will also need to prove to Orlando City that he’s still worth taking up a valuable DP slot beyond next season. He has been, without a doubt, one of Orlando’s best players during his time here. Consistency may be lacking but when he’s playing well, he’s unstoppable.
Which is part of the reason why the club has more to lose than Kaká in the scenario that he leaves Orlando. He’s been the face of the franchise to the world, he’s been the club’s captain and leader on the field. Yes, he’s been inconsistent and invisible at times and doesn’t often take control when he needs to. But there’s no other player on the City roster that has his vision and technical ability. And in its current state, the club will struggle to find another player of his caliber when the time eventually comes.
Orlando is not Los Angeles or New York. They will struggle to bring in big names and they will generally need to overpay to get them. If Flávio Augusto da Silva did not have a personal connection with the Brazilian superstar, the Lions may have never landed Kaká. The number of rumors of European elite on their way to Central Florida have dissipated as the transfer windows have passed. Antonio Nocerino and Julio Baptista may be widely recognized names overseas, but their careers were trending way down when they signed on.
If Orlando wants someone to fill the large hole Kaká will eventually leave, the club is going to need to become a more appealing destination. Treading water in the bottom half of the standings doesn’t help. But becoming a stable fixture in MLS is going to take time and without Kaká at the helm, City will most likely take a step back.
To a degree, Orlando needs to prove that it’s worth sticking around for just as much as Kaká needs to prove that he deserves a new contract. Jason Kreis will get his chance to mold the roster into his own image, but the clock is ticking on getting results. Why should Kaká sit around and collect a paycheck while his club wallows in the mire of mid-table? If he still feels that he can make a difference to a club that can challenge, he will. He left AC Milan, the club that defined his career, in 2015 when they were left out of the UEFA Champions League. If he’s willing to leave a team that he has so much history with, what’s keeping him in Orlando?
In a time where the Eastern Conference is slowly loading up with influential players from the top European leagues and becoming more competitive than ever, City needs difference makers. If Kaká walks, Orlando risks falling behind.