Antonio Nocerino has had a rocky start to his time in Orlando. He has received a lot of criticism from fans and media alike about his passing, positioning and general ball security through his first few appearances in purple. Part of it is understandable; there is a certain level of performance expected out of relatively well-known Europeans coming to MLS.
With the added debacle of the tampering allegation and his reportedly high salary, there were some extra expectations placed on him to perform before he even arrived stateside, and so far he has failed to live up to what Orlando City gave up to get him.
But that will hardly be the case as the season rolls on. Nocerino has the potential to be a key contributor, and starter, for this City squad. He was sought after enough that Orlando risked a tampering charge to get him and Heath was willing to change the team shape to accommodate him. Even now, Nocerino is getting the nod over players like Servando Carrasco, who has had a far more consistent season up to this point. But why? It is certainly not a case of highest wages getting the most playing time, or else Aurélien Collin would never miss a match.
The easy excuses at this stage are that he's still acclimating to the American game or that there's a language barrier, but those don't get to the heart of what's going on with the Italian. Those certainly do play a factor, and as he jells more with the squad he will improve, but there is a ceiling to that improvement. To really understand why Nocerino has been struggling, you have to understand him as a player and what his playing style brings to the table.
Match fitness is the most integral part of Nocerino's style of play and it's the thing he's lacking most. He won't be the player breaking up opponent attacks like Cristian Higuita or controlling the midfield like Darwin Cerén, and he shouldn't be asked to be a like-for-like replacement for either. Nocerino has always been the engine of the midfield, running from box to box, pressing his opponents and forcing turnovers, and providing an outlet for his teammates. That effort required is strongly reliant on fitness, however.
Nocerino's talents complement the likes of Higuita and Cerén and they should make an effective midfield trio when, or if, all three are healthy and available. His goal-scoring history shows that he is most effective trailing the attack and blasting the ball from outside of the box, something we almost saw against New England if not for a fingertip save from Bobby Shuttleworth. That is about as much as Lions fans can expect from him when it comes to filling the score sheet. As Heath said in March, Orlando City "didn't [get] him for his finishing."
The most effective aspect of his offensive game won't win very many accolades. Nocerino's movement off-ball drags defenders with him and opens up space for those around him. What he needs most are players who can fill those gaps. Midway through the second half against New England, Nocerino, Júlio Baptista, and Kevin Molino made a meal of the Revolution defense with quick passes and movement into channels that could be a sample of things to come. Nocerino and Baptista played a quick one-two to get past Lee Nguyen, drawing Scott Caldwell forward and opening up acres of space for Molino to occupy.
While Baptista and Molino played another one-two, Nocerino shifted wide in an attempt to draw Gershon Koffie with him and away from the action. That kind of movement isn't apparent with any of Orlando's other central midfielders and it helps to have a player who can create space for the facilitators in the middle of the pitch.
But without consistent playing time since he was on loan at Parma nearly a year ago, it was always going to take time for Nocerino to get back up to speed. And to get to the correct speed, he's going to need all of the competitive minutes he can get in order to get his legs back into the swing of things and to connect better with his teammates.
His peak seasons with AC Milan were thanks to his connections with the players around him, namely Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With some kind of rapport seemingly developing between Baptista and Nocerino, and the connection he already has with Kaká, there is potential for the Italian to find his niche in Orlando once he gets up to full match fitness.