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Keeping Kaká: How Should Orlando City Approach Re-Signing its Captain?

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Kaká says he wants to stay in Orlando beyond 2017, but Orlando City must choose if it should let him.

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

There’s arguably nothing that will serve as a more important piece of Orlando City history than Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, a.k.a. Kaká. The Brazilian former World Cup winner, was awarded the honor of FIFA World Player of the Year in 2007, the last year a player not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi won the award.

The club’s first Designated Player signing in MLS has connected Orlando to a global audience. On the field, when he’s been able to keep his aging body healthy, he’s been among the most productive players in the league, with 18 goals and 17 assists in 52 league matches.

While some might argue that as the most expensive player in league history — making over $7 million per season — he hasn’t quite played up to his contract, others (myself included) would disagree.

I do believe that Kaká has been worth close to every penny his contract owes him, and a lot of that has to come with what he brings to the club off the field alone — tickets, merchandise sales, social media following, TV ratings. It all adds up, and it’s all worth money.

So when videos and stories started surfacing from Brazil this off-season with quotes, from Kaká himself, stating that 2017 would potentially be his last season in Orlando, questions were raised.

The club denied the statements, and CEO Alex Leitao said Orlando City would try to convince him to come back beyond 2017.

At MLS Media Days in Los Angeles this week, the Brazilian captain also clarified his comments in the off-season as “misunderstood,” and has said that he hopes to stay in Orlando when his contract runs up.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“A misunderstanding because I am very happy here,” Kaká told reporters at MLS Media Day on Tuesday. “I had a three-year contract, so this is the last year under this contract, but my idea is to stay here.

“Of course we never know what can happen at the end of the season or during the season, but my idea for now is to stay in Orlando and stay in the league.”

I’m okay with Kaká coming back for another season in 2018, but on one condition: he has to take a pay cut. A big one. He’s the league’s highest-paid player, we know that. But is he better or more valuable than, say, Sebastian Giovinco?

This debate might go on all season, so let me get my argument out of the way now:

The league is changing, and the days of paying top-class, but aging, superstars is quickly fading, as teams look to get younger and more competitive in not just the league, but outside of the league in the CONCACAF Champions League. Look at what Atlanta’s doing. Look at what Seattle is doing. Toronto. Teams are still spending top dollar, but on younger, more explosive players that can make a steady impact in the quickly growing league.

And this is not saying Kaká can’t keep up. He’s proven over the past two seasons that he’s still got some gas left in the tank when he’s healthy. But if you have to choose between a 30-year-old, $7 million DP or three $2-3 million DPs in their prime, the answer should be obvious.

Of course, the club being able to make those moves isn’t solely based on whether or not Kaká comes back or takes less money. It also depends on figuring out a positive solution for Bryan Rochez and Carlos Rivas too. After all, they are holding down the other two DP slots on the roster.

But if either one of those guys are no longer on the roster in 2018, the door for another DP signing opens, and with construction of the new stadium coming to a close and the new $20 million-plus training facility around the corner, spending could remain tight.

I’m not asking the player to drop below a DP salary, but Orlando City needs to make sure it does what’s fair and smart for the situation and not get carried away with making sure the captain remains among the league’s highest-paid players because of friendship and loyalty — especially when you can find more value for less money, while also filling important holes on the roster. Cyle Larin could be sold and Kevin Molino wants to be paid, and could be in for more money if he has another big 2017. Will the club move him if a solution can’t be found? The pieces are always moving.

MLS is changing, and Orlando City needs to keep up before it gets left behind — especially with a very dangerous threat just up the road in Georgia.