Nani turned in a true Designated Player performance in Saturday’s 3–3 draw against the New England Revolution. It was production the Lions haven’t seen enough of since joining MLS in 2015. The Portuguese international was involved in every goal, scoring twice and assisting another as the Lions tried to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
It’s a part of the Orlando City roster structure that has come under severe scrutiny — and for good reason. In a salary-capped league, finding value is important up and down the roster. But with Designated Players not counting towards the cap, they represent the biggest potential advantage when used properly.
Orlando has been on the receiving end of this advantage countless times: Zlatan Ibrahimovic put the LA Galaxy on his back with a hat trick in a 4–3 win over the Lions in 2018, while Wayne Rooney backed up his miracle game-winning assist in 2018 by scoring game-winners in both of D.C. United’s victories over Orlando this season. Other Designated Players who continue to haunt Orlando include Josef Martinez, who has scored seven goals in six games, and Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti, who scored 10 in 10 against Orlando.
Orlando’s DP history is less storied. The Lions entered the league with Brazilian legend Kaká as their only high value Designated Player, deciding instead to go down the value route with their other two spots, picking up Young DPs Carlos Rivas and Bryan Róchez. Since then, it has been a who’s who of overvalued and unproductive DPs, from Matías Pérez García to Giles Barnes to Sacha Kljestan. Dom Dwyer, who ended his goal drought this weekend, increasingly looks like a roster clog as questions about his viability in a DP slot continue, while 21-year-old Josué Colmán, Orlando’s record signing, isn’t even with the team as he returned to Paraguay on loan with Cerro Porteño earlier in the year.
One player who has fit the billing is Nani, who leads the team in both goals (12 and tied for ninth-most in MLS) and assists (nine, tied for 13th-most). Not only that, but his combined 21 goal involvements also breaks the previous team single-season record of 19 set by both Kaká (9 goals, 10 assists) and Kevin Molino (11 goals, 8 assists) in 2016. It also marked Nani’s third MLS game with multiple goals. The only other Orlando player to have scored more than once in a game this year is Tesho Akindele in City’s 5–1 trouncing of FC Cincinnati. It’s a stat that puts Nani behind only Cyle Larin for most multiple-goal games in Orlando City history, with the Canadian striker notching seven in his three seasons in purple, and level with Kaká, who also did it three times. The only other players to have scored more than once in an MLS game for Orlando are Dwyer (twice), and Molino and Adrian Winter (both once).
Nani currently sits at a goal involvement pace per 90 minutes of 0.942, better than all but his career-high season with Rome-based Serie A team Lazio in 2017–18 (0.962). That isn’t to say Nani is without flaws. He has dipped in and out of form, scoring only one goal and registering just one assist during a 10-appearance midseason stint that saw Orlando go 2-3-5 in those games he played, while he also missed two games in that stretch through injury. And while he hasn’t had the 20+ goal impact the likes of Zlatan, Martinez, or Carlos Vela have had, Nani has still quickly become the most productive Designated Player in Orlando City’s five-season history.
It’s even more remarkable to consider that Nani was brought in primarily as a creator, not a goal scorer, and has spent most of his time on the wing. He’s also a 32-year-old who has been playing non-stop since the start of the European 2018–19 season and still put up these numbers.
However, the biggest mistake would be to take Nani for granted and for the team to become over reliant on him. As I have said previously, he can’t always be relied on to be a solo impact player, despite the show he put on against New England. He should be a crucial cog in a larger machine. There is a golden window for Nani in MLS and in order for him to continue to have success, he needs to be supported by the pieces around him. The 2020 off-season has already been billed as a significant one for Orlando City. Now that the team is stabilized and there are foundations of a respectable team to build on, the next window will likely see the team shed the bulk of the poor, big-money contracts that were signed under the stewardship of former General Manager Niki Budalić, which has limited the team’s roster flexibility.
Next year will give the front office a chance to move on from the deadwood and build on their successful 2019 acquisitions. The likes of Robin Jansson, Ruan, and Sebas Méndez have all stood out in their debut seasons, while the addition of Mauricio Pereyra in July looks to be the first step in rejuvenating the attack. And while the Uruguayan is a Designated Player in 2019, there is room to buy him down next year and invest once again.
Orlando will need to partner Nani with a top quality center forward. Within the last 12 months, New York City FC, the Revolution, and the Portland Timbers have all reaped the benefits in sufficiently investing in the position with the recruitment of Alexandru Mitriță, Gustavo Bou, and Brian Fernández, respectively. It’s about time Orlando City stopped being complacent with one worthwhile Designated Player at a time and did the same, finally making good on the promise to defy expectations.