Orlando City forward Alexandre Pato has had a long, arduous road back from a knee injury that sidelined him for almost the entirety of the 2021 season. The talented Brazilian could have made a big difference a year ago for a Lions team that spent the start of the season without Daryl Dike and lost the big striker to injury for a spell in midseason. Instead, he spent almost the full 2021 season recovering from a procedure on his knee and setbacks he suffered through during his recovery.
Forecast to be out three to six weeks after surgery in early May of 2021 — a procedure that took place a couple of weeks after he sustained the injury — Pato was expected to be out until maybe as late as mid-June. However, a slow recovery and setbacks upon returning to training delayed his return until Oct. 20. His longest appearance last season after his return was 17 minutes. The Lions were eliminated from the playoffs before he could build his fitness back up to being able to take on a heavier workload. Pato then worked through the off-season and the 2022 preseason and earned the start against Montreal in Sunday’s opener.
Pato’s road back culminated in his game-winning goal Sunday in Orlando’s 2-0 win over CF Montreal in the 2022 season opener for both teams. Pato looked up for the match throughout the game, making well-timed runs, dragging defenders out of teammates’ way, and involving his fellow Lions with smart passes. Not everything came off, as the rust of the off-season and the connectivity of an attack still in its infancy combined to thwart some promising buildup play on multiple occasions.
But when Pato got on the end of Ruan’s cross in the 49th minute and swept it past goalkeeper Sebastian Breza, there was a visible display of relief and joy on the Brazilian’s face as he celebrated with teammates and then ran over to share the moment with Head Coach Oscar Pareja.
“Oscar and me, we have a good connection,” Pato said after Sunday’s match. “Sometimes he says some words at training, so I’d be so nervous, but that’s our job. We spent a lot of time together in his room to speak about the games.”
Pato said he gained confidence from Pareja’s belief in him.
“He said ‘Pato, we need you. I believe in you. I need to have you again here. We need to be more close,’ because last season I spent a lot of time out of the field,” the veteran forward said. “So, Oscar, for me, he’s a special guy, a special coach. He’s a good man. I’m so happy to have him at this club, to have him close to me right now, because he can (teach me) so many things about soccer, so many movements. He (teaches) me every day.”
One of the things Pareja has been working on with Pato is to not try to do too much and trust that his teammates will find him.
“I talk with Oscar and Oscar said, ‘Believe in the players. Believe in your teammates to get the ball for you in front,’” he said. “I like to have the ball at my feet. So, sometimes when I don’t touch (the ball) for long, I want to come behind the lines and try to touch for a while. And he said, ‘No, wait. Wait there, the ball’s coming for you.’ So that happened (Sunday). I stayed in the best place and then Ruan came on the right and touched for the middle, in the area, and the ball came to my feet, and I shot.”
The last year has been fraught with difficulties for a player who wanted to perform well for the fans at Exploria Stadium. He was still learning his teammates and the system last year when he was injured in the opening day match against Atlanta. That injury limited him to just four appearances (one start) and only 106 minutes. His time out of the lineup understandably frustrated fans and led to many derisive jokes and some less-than-charitable remarks on social media from those questioning his commitment to playing.
Meanwhile, the person with the best view of how the injury and slow recovery affected Pato was his coach.
“It has been a rocky journey for Alex in last year. An injury kept him out of the team for so long,” Pareja said. “He wanted to stay. (Sunday) with that goal, he wanted to help the team and I thought it was a joy that we wanted to share, because I know how much he has worked for that.”
How Pato performs — and how he stays healthy — in 2022 remains to be seen. But anyone who questioned the 32-year-old’s passion for the game and desire to be with Orlando City should have had those thoughts put to rest on Sunday. After the game, Pato spoke about growing the team’s chemistry so the Lions can improve as the season goes on.
“We need to play like a team,” he said. “Everybody needs to play like friends and brothers and go to the field to help each other. If you help each other, we can arrive to (our) best this year. We need to play more to get this connection together, but we started well and I hope we can (stay on that path) for the rest of the season.”
Pato was the best player on the field against Montreal and won Man of the Match honors. That obviously meant a lot to the man, as he not only brought the trophy to the post-game press conference with him, but also lovingly strapped it into his car with a seatbelt for the drive home, and proudly posted the picture on social media.
It was an endearing moment for a player who finally got back on the field and was able to help his team secure three points. And, hopefully, it was the start of a big year for Pato.