He may have won the Champions League, Serie A, La Liga and even the World Cup, but Kaka is prouder of few moments in his career than this. When New York City FC travelled to the Citrus Bowl, a 70,000-seater stadium, to face Orlando City Soccer Club in both sides’ inaugural Major League Soccer match 12 months ago, it was an engulfing watch. The game finished as a 1-1 draw, Mix Diskarud’s strike for the visitors being cancelled out by the Brazilian’s freekick, netting the Floridians’ first top flight goal.
Not many have played football more gracefully than Kaka over the past ten or twenty years, and his smooth style was one of the first to redefine the position of the ‘number 10’. Gone are the days of the second striker, the little, pacey man darting to reach his partner’s flick on. Thanks, in part, to the quiet, unassuming, humble Christian turned world superstar, a deeper, more effective attacking midfield role has become fashionable.
After years playing for Milan, Real Madrid and, in two spells, hometown club Sao Paolo, Kaka took a huge step in his career last year. It is nothing new to see a household name play out his final years in the States, in fact he followed on from a long line. Gerd Muller, George Best and Johan Cruyff all headed over for at least a semi-retirement before American soccer was even as well marketed as it is now in the shape of MLS.
Interest in the sport has blossomed since David Beckham made the step across to LA Galaxy in 2007. The importance of the former England captain moving to the club was paramount, not only because of his standing in both football and showbiz, but because he joined at the age of 31, rejecting much more high profile offers to head to Hollywood.
Beckham sacrificed his European football career for a few years, before joining Milan and Paris St Germain. He helped raise the profile hugely, opening the league up as an ideal place for big names to leave their mark. Former England teammates Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole recently joined the Galaxy, while Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and, David Villa are residing in New York’s latest franchise.
It is Kaka, though, who has taken the biggest risk. Still only 32 when he signed for Orlando, he admits he spoke to Beckham about the pros and cons of the league before signing for what he describes as a “baby” team. Orlando a club which did exist prior to their debut campaign in MLS last year, but unlike the Manchester City-funded New York, they look like taking a much longer route to the top. Kaka is not just the marquee man, he is captain, chief motivator and central to everything they do.
When the two sides met a year ago, Lampard was on loan at cross-pond partners Man City and Pirlo’s deal from Juventus was not yet in the pipeline. The game was billed as the clash of two former heavyweights of the game, Kaka vs Villa.
There was little to separate both teams, proven by the final East Conference standings. Orlando edged it by a place, finishing seventh, but neither could do what has only been done once before, reach the playoffs at the first time of asking.
In an interview with Sky Sports last week, Kaka made it clear that Orlando’s aim this season has to be a top-six finish, reaching that end of season party. The same is probably true for New York, but despite former Milan and Juventus midfielder Antonio Nocerino’s summer move to the home of Disneyland, the Lions, as they are nicknamed, could be eating dust from the Big Apple.
The links with the biggest ‘City’ in England, and all the money their owners bring, gives New York a huge advantage long term. No new signings have yet been announced, but Kaka’s former partner in crime at San Siro Pirlo, Lampard, and Athletic Bilbao’s former stalwart fullback Andoni Iraola, will all have settled in much better this season. The man tasked with moulding this impressive constellation of stars into a team is none other than Patrick Vieira, making his first-team management bow.
Pressure is something that he, and those big names at his disposal, are used to dealing with, but they will have to this season. Much like in Manchester, where Pep Guardiola will be coaching next season, Sheikh Mansour, the mega-rich man behind everything, expects results.
That star quality is clear and seems to be a permanent fixture for NYCFC. Kaka has had to shoulder most of the responsibility in his early days at Orlando, and while Nocerino can offer some valuable experience, the men in purple will have to galvanise a real team spirit if they are to once again better their new found adversaries.
Orlando Soccer Club could well be a big hit in future. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier Hernandez are just two of the names linked over the closed season, but there are stronger vibes coming from New York this season. Kaka, Nocerino and co. will have their work cut out if they are to compete at the top this coming season.