It is Monday, June 30, 2014. Hundreds of fans wait patiently at Orlando International Airport for Brazilian superstar Kaká to arrive. Heavily rumored to be signing with the MLS expansion team, fans simply could not wait to welcome in the new king of Orlando.
The next day, it was official. The last Ballon d’Or winner not named Ronaldo or Messi became the highest-paid player in MLS history. He came to Orlando not for a pre-retirement paycheck or beautiful scenery, but to win MLS championships.
At the time, it was exactly what Orlando City, the city of Orlando, and MLS needed: a big-name player who could still produce, coming into the league to win. He was a player that fit perfectly in then-coach Adrian Heath’s system and could be put in a position to succeed and set his teammates up for success as well.
For the city of Orlando, the signing of Kaká was a marketing gold mine. Orlando is the most popular place in the U.S. for Brazilians to visit or move, and culture in the city has slowly transformed due to the tourism from South America’s largest country. Orlando City became the Soccer Capital of the South, and that was a major reason why the Lions were able to construct arguably the best stadium in MLS.
On the field, he was the center of the attack. The new partnership between him and Cyle Larin looked something that Lion supporters could savor for years to come. Once in the final third, Kaká finds that last pass which Larin tucks away for a goal.
But let’s move to present day now — into Year 3 of Orlando City’s MLS tenure — and pose this question: does Kaká still pose that same threat or is Jason Kreis’ Lions taking a different route to that playoff destination?
Off the field Kaká still provides much to the city of Orlando and the Lions. He still (and will always) holds the imagination of a former Ballon d’Or winner. He is still the highest paid player in MLS history, and an idol in the local community. Walking around the city, whether game day or not, and there will always be people repping his jersey.
But does Orlando City still need to rely on his on the field production?
The first thing to look at is the fact that he is not playing. He has missed games every year since he has been in the league because of injury, and his 34-year-old body simply cannot take the stress of an MLS campaign week in and week out anymore. Also, as an attacking midfielder, he is required to get up and down the field and he simply cannot keep up with the younger players anymore for a full 90.
Most importantly, however, from the time when Kaká is on the field and off the field, Orlando City no longer sees a big drop down in the level of play. Give credit to Kreis and the front office for putting together such a strong team with improved depth, but that also means that Kaká needs to step up his game even more. When he comes back from injury, the Lions need to be on a whole other level.
The opposite side to this argument is that his touch is still top of the league, he can see the field better than most players, and his leadership is second to none. But the Brazilian needs to be near the top of the MLS charts in goals and assists, and he simply is not at that level. Furthermore, his monstrous contract may be a reason why Orlando City does not bring him back. If the money spent on Kaká is freed up it could be used to bring in better players (Chicharito, maybe?). However, he remains a big-name draw and his off-field impact for the club certainly makes up for some of what his injury problems have taken away on the pitch, even in Year 3.
If Kaká is going to be a part of the Orlando City team moving forward, his contract needs to be brought way down. I believe that he is still a valuable member of the team, but he is no longer the player that the entire team looks for to win. Matias Peresa Garcia, Giles Barnes, and Larin have all stepped up in the Brazilian’s absence during this 3-1-0 start. Even Carlos Rivas has played at another level this season, provided two assists in the first four games.
The best solution is not to get rid of Kaká, but keep him at a lesser role. His contract needs to be brought way down so that the money could be reinvested into other areas of the team. Orlando City’s sole focus needs to be on winning the MLS Cup, as the club’s marketing has been established and isn’t as much of a priority anymore — not as much as say...winning.
Can the Lions win with the team as it is? Possibly, but it is a tough challenge. Moving forward, Kaká should be used less, possibly as a super sub and for key games. When the Lions are in the playoffs they will need his leadership and cool-headedness to keep his teammates’ emotions in check in tight situations. By playing less throughout the year, his body will be saved for later on in the season. Also, the team depth will improve and younger players will get the opportunity to play with the first team.
Kaká is still a valuable member of the team but he is no longer the key player that the team rallies around to win. If Orlando City could get rid of some of his salary, spend that money elsewhere, and use Kaká in a lesser role, the Lions may just be favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference.