The nature of sports and its many fandoms can be pretty funny at times. How one athlete can experience both the highest of highs and lowest of lows all within one particular franchise can be an interesting thing to watch. It doesn’t take much to go from being loved to being loathed. And vice versa.
In Orlando, for example, just two blocks east of where Orlando City now calls home, many of the same fans that root on the Major League Soccer club were part of what is well known as the “Dwightmare.” Dwight Howard, the same man that helped lead the Orlando Magic to an NBA Finals appearance in 2009, then two years later finished second in the MVP race, burned just about every bridge on his way out the door, and probably wouldn’t be welcome backed to town by more than a handful of loyal supporters should that scenario ever come out.
And how the exact opposite can take place.
My favorite example is one close to my sports fandom, up north in the Bronx with Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees. At the height of his nasty legal battle with the Yankees and Major League Baseball, just about any Yankees fan, including myself, would have been more than happy to see him go away into the darkness, never to be heard from again. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he defied the odds, returned to the game in 2015 after a year-long suspension, and posted one of the most miraculous seasons put on by a Yankees slugger in years. We all loved him again.
Back to Orlando, now back over a couple of blocks west, we have story of Antonio Nocerino, a man signed last season to high expectations, only to come nowhere near meeting those marks throughout most of the season. Remember that?
It’s okay if you don’t, and rightfully so, given the Italian midfield’s extraordinary revival over the last seven months or so, essentially since the minute Jason Kreis walked through the front doors of the Orlando City offices last summer. Nocerino has shown up every day looking more fit, more energized, and more in-tune with Orlando City’s lineup than at any point through the first five months of the 2016 season.
He’s gone from being one of the most hated men on the squad to fan favorite with a dangerous beard and viral videos to back him up.
Vamosssss!!! Together #preseason @orlandocitysc pic.twitter.com/JZEBon1Qw6— Kaka (@KAKA) February 3, 2017
I also made it a point to myself to show you guys this article, which I wrote in May of last season, calling for Nocerino to be shipped off (insert “Gavin, you are awful” comments here), which also included tweets from #important #pundits covering the team as well, who I’m sure now feel as silly as me now for saying such things. I was one of those people that tried to stay patient with him, understanding that adjusting to a new league in a new country was a big deal, but at a certain point enough was enough.
In fairness, however, we all really did believe those things at the time, because they were probably true. But a change in coaches and systems seems to have brought out the best that Nocerino has to offer the club and Major League Soccer.
And Sunday night, he played in an important role for the Lions in their hard-fought 1-0 victory over New York City FC. The former AC Milan midfielder, who turns 32 about a month from today, came up with four tackles — second most on the team behind Giles Barnes — while being everywhere on the pitch throughout the match. His contributions across the field didn’t go unnoticed. I present his passing chart as evidence:
He’s become an outlet for the Lions to lean on defensively. He’s become an inspiration for younger players on the squad to learn from. And he’s become a perfect fit for Kreis as he transitions the club into its new, defense-first style of play in the 4-4-2 system.
When you think of the grit and determination, that “never die” mentality that is Orlando City, you can think of Antonio Nocerino for helping bring that along that way. He’s no Adrian Winter by any stretch of the imagination in terms of the 100 percent effort on every ball and fireball persona he brought to the pitch, but he has now embodied the culture that drives Orlando City and its supporters.
So I’ll admit it, you guys: I was dead wrong about Antonio Nocerino.