Kaka's complicated Orlando legacy is a contrast of on-field and off
The legacy of a star can be difficult to decipher.
David Beckham’s impact was never just about the on-field results, though he won two MLS Cups. Freddy Adu’s downfall wasn’t all his fault, though surely he owned some of the failures. Landon Donovan is the greatest player the U.S. has produced, yet isn’t universally appreciated by the country. Why? It’s complicated.
On one hand, Kaka’s presence in Orlando played a significant role in educating the Orlando audience to: a) the presence of a soccer team, and b) that you could see high-level players if you bought tickets. The former FIFA World Player of the Year arrived with one of the greatest résumés in MLS history. He brought instant credibility to the franchise, both locally and internationally. People in Europe and South America know Orlando City exists in part because Kaka played there. That is true currency in the soccer world.
Kaka also understood his responsibility to grow the game in this country. He is the prime example of how a star athlete should treat fans. He would sign autographs for hours after teammates had left the stadium. There were hiccups, but often Kaka would sit and smile and do the media tours every star is asked to do in this league. He was happy to sit with a local newspaper reporter before his second season to talk about the most personal areas of his life off the field as well as his goals on it. He didn’t have to do that, but he learned it comes with the territory in the U.S.
On the field, Kaka’s influence was mixed. He could still show flashes of that dominant player that wowed at AC Milan. There were moments he could take over a game. Too often, though, those moments didn’t last long enough.
As the highest-paid player in the league, Kaka’s production was just OK. In three seasons in MLS, he never scored double-digit goals – eight of his 24 goals across three seasons were from the penalty spot – and he hit double-digit assists just once. He played 28 games in his inaugural season, 24 games in 2016 and will finish his career with 23 games played in 2017. Sometimes, his defensive deficiencies left his team exploited.
The bigger problem was that, at his price, Kaka also represented an opportunity cost. With David Villa producing in back-to-back MVP-caliber seasons in New York, and Sebastian Giovinco turning the league on his head, Kaka’s $7 million price tag was as much a negative as it was a positive. His peers were changing games every week. What could Orlando City do with that Designated Player spot if given the chance?
And thus, with Kaka’s departure, we are left to juggle a complicated history. Kaka was an integral part of the inaugural Orlando City team, essential to its growth and crucial to its credibility. He was also, eventually, a costly drag on the team’s payroll. There is very little in-between when it comes to Designated Players in the current salary-budget reality.
With Kaka on the way out, the ownership has given Orlando City coach Jason Kreis and general manager Niki Budalic a huge vote of confidence. Entering their third season together – Kreis was hired midway through 2016 – Kreis and Budalic will try to execute the most important step in a rebuild. This winter window will determine a lot about the future of the club.
Kaka’s contract coming off the budget is not the only major move. Orlando City could look to sell and cash in on Cyle Larin, a transaction that would pad an allocation bank account that badly needs an infusion. They may also sell, buy down or cut ties with Carlos Rivas, a move that would open up a second Designated Player spot.
There is plenty of money that can come off the cap in other places via release, trade or sale, including Jose Aja ($216,000), Kevin Alston ($135,000), Giles Barnes ($781,250), Cristian Higuita ($286,666), Seb Hines ($129,996), Antonio Nocerino ($850,000), Rafa Ramos ($100,800) and Josh Saunders ($150,000). That’s more than $2 million in salary and two TAM players that would come off the books.
Talk about a fresh look.
While changing out as many as 11 first-team players is a major task, it should also be an opportunity for Orlando. Larin, Rivas and Higuita are all talented enough to bring a decent return, though the value of all three may have dropped over the course of the 2017 season. Orlando City also will get a chance to see what Kreis can do with a roster stocked with players that fit his 4-4-2 diamond system.
What happens next year, too, will surely factor into how Kaka’s legacy is judged. This is the reality of being a star. What no one can deny is that Kaka’s influence on this club was an important one. That influence will not fade away just because he stopped playing.