Orlando welcomes happy hero Kaka
You could see it on his face. When Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known to the soccer world as Kaka, arrived in Florida to be unveiled as the first designated player for Orlando City Soccer Club, you could see his joy. First, when he emerged from the airport concourse to a waiting throng bedecked in purple, many of them holding signs emblazoned with his name. Then when he stopped to take a photo with a young fan. He never stopped beaming, from the moment he arrived until the moment security forcefully ushered him into a waiting SUV.
Truth be told, "joyful" seems to be Kaka's default setting. It was there when he joined AC Milan, there when he moved to Real Madrid, and there again when he returned to the Rossoneri. A turn toward America doesn't change Kaka. But Kaka may change America.
At the very least, Kaka will enrapture the burgeoning soccer hotbed of Central Florida. In almost every way, the former Ballon d'Or winner is the perfect man for the job. He's still young enough (32) and good enough to have an impact on the field. His demeanor and personality (Kaka is regularly mentioned as one of the nicest stars in the world's game) make him the perfect ambassador for both Orlando City and MLS as a whole. When David Beckham joined LA Galaxy, questions about his commitment dogged him; questions that crystallized when he forced a pair of loans to AC Milan. Thierry Henry is too smoldering a soul to take on the role of MLS greeter, and none of the other DPs in the league are of big-enough name or profile to make a dent in the public consciousness.
That even includes Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, coups for the league who are nonetheless penalized in the court of public opinion for being Americans coming back to the American league.
Kaka is no Beckham, but he is a well-known soccer name with a top-notch pedigree. Kaka's appeal is in his anti-Beckham-ness; where Beckham can be brooding and overly cool, Kaka is the opposite. Kaka is Disney World (he's made many trips there in recent years, pre-Orlando signing) to Beckham's Sunset Strip. Kaka doesn't look out of place taking a photo with a person in a Goofy costume, because no matter how ridiculous it might seem, there doesn't seem to be anything counterfeit about his enjoyment of the moment.
It's very difficult to dislike Kaka, the person. It's easier to dislike Kaka, the player, especially in relation to the hefty salary Orlando City will pay him to ply his trade in Florida. Kaka is the latest high-priced talent to be lured to North American shores for a paycheck they might not get anywhere else. MLS is paying a premium for players whose European careers at the top level are over. It opens the league to questions about its long-term approach, and whether or not devoting such a large portion of the relatively small amount of available money should be directed to players on the downside of their abilities.
Is Kaka the "right kind of signing" for MLS at this moment, with a hefty new TV contract in its pocket and a stated intent to take on the world's best leagues in the not-too-distant future? Maybe not, but that doesn't mean he's not the right kind of signing for Orlando City, a club looking to make a splash upon its entry into America's top flight next season, at this moment.
Make no mistake, Orlando City bringing Kaka to America is only somewhat about his abilities as a player. The Brazilian's name and popularity will open doors for the team well beyond the borders of Florida or the United States, enabling them to expand both their commercial interests and attractiveness to foreign players. Getting a foothold in Europe and South America is key to Orlando competing quickly with its more established MLS brethren. Majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva carries a wallet thick enough to spend with some of the better teams in the league, but anyone who knows MLS knows it takes more than cash to be successful.
If the reception for Kaka in Orlando proves anything, it's that there is immense enthusiasm for the team, and that the player's star power resonates within the soccer community. Kaka's arrival won't make the club a contender for the MLS Cup in its first year, nor is he likely to dominate a league known for its fast, physical style. But he is certain to have his moments wearing Orlando City purple, and he is certain to be effective in spreading the brand of the club.
Simply on his merits as a player, Kaka is probably not worth the money he'll be paid to grace the fields of MLS. Of course, Orlando City isn't paying him just for playing abilities, just as the Galaxy didn't pay Beckham only for the moments of brilliance he could create with his famous right foot. Kaka is a throwback DP in the mold of the first DP, and of Henry, who brings something to the table neither of those players ever truly possessed.
Joy. And joy, it's infectious.