Nani is without a doubt one of the most talented players in Major League Soccer. The former Portuguese international has a level of class and skill that places him above many others in the league. Even at 34 years old, he’s been an MVP-caliber star for Orlando City. With 21 goals and nine assists in 54 MLS regular season games, Nani has become the leader of an Orlando team ready to compete for trophies. Nani is one of the best, most successful, and beloved players in Orlando’s MLS history, but if there’s one knock on his time here, it’s his lack of consistency.
The narrative around him for two years has been that of inconsistency. In 2019, he scored eight goals during a stretch of eight appearances before the June international break, but only had four goals and three assists in the team’s final 17 games. In that hot stretch, he was capable of making MLS Best XI, but was only OK for the rest of the season. Granted, there was added fatigue coming off a full European season, but 2020 was a similar story. He was a finalist for MVP at the MLS is Back tournament with three goals and three assists in a seven-game run to the final. He was also great in the team’s eight games after the tournament, with three goals and two assists during that stretch. But again, he couldn’t keep up with the grind of the season, scoring just three goals in the remaining 10 regular season games and the playoffs.
Now in 2021, Nani’s off to an interesting but good start. He scored in three straight games before a questionable suspension ruled him out for two games leading into this international break. After this time off, can Nani find his best form and maintain it for the rest of the year?
This added break could be beneficial, providing a respite from any early season burnout. With almost a month off, an MLS is Back-esque run could be coming this month from the captain. Orlando’s improved forward depth will also be helpful.
In 2019 and 2020, Nani was tasked with a lot of production. Outside of Chris Mueller last year, Orlando hasn’t had another winger capable of doing anything close to what Nani can do on the scoresheet. We’ve seen Luiz Muzzi and the front office look to address this in the last two transfer windows, bringing in Alexander Alvarado and Silvester van der Water to provide dynamism out wide.
While we still have to wait and see on Alvarado’s capability, van der Water was the star of the team during Nani’s suspension. The Dutchman registered his first MLS assist and scored his first goal in purple in the past two games and looks like a potential star. Add in a Mueller renaissance, which is far from a guarantee given his current form, and Orlando could have the depth to manage Nani’s minutes down the stretch.
If Orlando doesn’t need Nani to play every minute of every game, he’ll be sharper in the decisive moments. If he can stay sharp, Orlando also needs him to be available.
Nani has been no stranger to the MLS Disciplinary Committee in his MLS career, already being suspended this year and serving another suspension in 2020 as well. He’s fiery at times on the field and can be vocal as the team’s captain. While I doubt another suspension will come this year, a red card could cost him key games later in the season.
This is the year for Orlando City. The front office has built a complete team with three opportunities for silverware this year, so long as the U.S. Open Cup is still on. There might not be a better time to win something than right now, and if that’s going to happen, Orlando needs its captain to be at his best. The Lions have the depth to keep him fresh, now it’s up to Nani to deliver a season of quality and, hopefully, a trophy.