The Brazilian star has launched his MLS career in spectacular fashion, on and off the field.
A few days removed from the MLS debut of Orlando City SC as well as himself, Brazilian attacker Kaka demurred when asked to assess the league and its direction.
“Maybe it’s soon to say something more specific,” he said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday, three days after a packed Citrus Bowl staged a dramatic 1-1 tie with fellow expansion entrant New York City FC. “The only thing I can say now is that I’m very happy with the choice that I made and I don’t know. Maybe I can tell you after.
“I just started to play here. The first game was amazing. I watched a few games during the weekend so it’s competitive, organized. Just those are the things I can say now. At the end of the year I can tell you much more about the league.”
By the end of the year, there will be much more data to assess how he and his team are faring in the league’s return to Florida after an absence of more than a decade. He says he came through his first game on the Citrus Bowl artificial turf in good order, though the truest tests will come in simmering summer heat.
“It’s no problem to play with this field, the artificial field,” he said diplomatically. "I wanted to understand also the day after I would feel and I felt better, good, no problem, no pain. We are going to have a lot of good games and good things to enjoy this year in Orlando in the Citrus Bowl.”
The roles of team leader and Designated Player and franchise figurehead haven't fazed him. In his press conferences and personal appearances, the smile is ever-present, the words respectful and enthusiastic. So far at least, he’s an ideal ambassador for the team and the league.
He delivered a pre-game pep talk just before OCSC walked onto the Citrus Bowl surface to be inundated by the sounds and sights of 62,510 attendees. He sent the vast majority of them home happy by striking a deflected free kick in stoppage time that knotted up the match with New York City FC at 1-1. His goal wasn't nearly as elegant as the Mix Diskerud curler that preceded it but for dramatic effect and importance, a thing of beauty nonetheless.
A roiling mass of purple burst into delirium as his teammates hugged him and saluted the crowd, referee Alan Kelly needed a few minutes to restart play, and the reaction continued in the hours that followed. Long after he’d changed and showered and left the stadium, the goal kept coming back. Kaka was born and bred in Brazil. Playing stints in La Liga and Serie A and dozens of caps with the national team have spread his persona around the world. Neymar is more renowned but Kaka is still famous.
“The reaction was amazing,” said Kaka, who has used that word a lot the past few days to describe the crowd, the goal, his move to Florida, the entire experience. “I received a lot of messages from everywhere, from a lot of friends in Europe, in Brazil. Everybody watched the game and the goal was incredible, because [it was] in the last minute of the game. So as I said after the game, probably we will understand this goal means really in a few years.”
If in the parlance of modern professional sport, “Orlando City SC” is the brand, it has signed a most personable and likable spokesperson. That won’t count for much on the field, where his skills and experience and fitness will be sorely tested by long flights and simmering heat and turf fields in several other cities. Despite his recent problems with injuries there is a real chance he can burnish the image of MLS in his own way: He’s by far the most prominent Brazilian to play in MLS.
In the long-gone days of the MetroStars, former World Cup winner Branco drew three red cards in his 11 appearances. Denilson in Dallas was a disaster as was Geovanni in San Jose. Of the several Brazilian players named Juninho or some derivation thereof, the Galaxy stalwart is least known around the world. Luciano Emilio gave D.C. United some productive years and Paulo Nagamura and Marcelo Saragosa have carved out solid reputations without coming close to the national team.
At 32, Kaka is no longer a mainstay for his country, though omission from the 2014 World Cup squad – along with the exclusions of Ronaldinho
and Robinho -- stupefied many observers. Last June prior to Brazil’s game against Croatia he appeared on the sideline in a Brazilian shirt with his son,
Luca, during warmups. There were handshakes and embraces and a few words of affection, and then he escorted his son off the field and out of the spotlight.
The 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year has slipped off the world stage, though a recall to the national team for friendlies against Argentina and Japan in October rekindled memories of his greatest days. A thunderous roar greeted his entry as a substitute against Argentina at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, a city obsessed with the global game and its biggest stars.
Though the setting and the stakes were vastly different on Sunday, and Kaka and the Lions have many obstacles yet to clear, his words during the conference call carried a sense of hope as well as purpose.
“It’s new for me, my family, for everybody around me,” he said of playing for a new team in a new country. “But we are very happy and my family was in the stadium and after the game everyone was happy. They were so proud of the goal and the supporters, the atmosphere, the new project that just started for Orlando City and me.
“So this is our expectation now. We are so happy at the season to play here. It’s different. It’s different from everywhere that I’ve already played but it’s new, it’s a big motivation for me, so I’m happy for that.”