He is just the second FIFA World Player of the Year (after Lothar Matthäus) ever to join Major League Soccer—and, in fact, the last King of the World, fútbol division, not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
Brazil’s Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, winner of the 2002 World Cup and the ’07 UEFA Champions League (with AC Milan), is best known around the planet as Kaká, the name his brother Rodrigo came up with as a child because he couldn’t pronounce Ricardo right. But in a one-on-one interview at the recent MLS media day in Los Angeles, the newest star for Orlando City was so affable that he said you can call him whatever you like.
“In Europe, everyone calls me Ricardo or Ricky,” explained the 32-year-old attacking midfielder with a smile. “In Brazil, it’s Kaká. So I’m used to both. It’s up to you.”
For all the attention given to the soon-to-arrive Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Villa, the most impressive addition to MLS this season is Kaká, who has the league’s highest guaranteed salary in the most recent players union figures ($7.2 million per year). But while Gerrard and Lampard signed 18-month contracts, Kaká made a longer commitment (three years) and said he hopes to stay even longer.
Truth be told, Kaká said he has long wanted to join MLS. There were talks with the LA Galaxy a few years ago, and the heads of New York Red Bulls fans might explode when they realize how nearly he came to joining his brother (playing name: Digão) on the team three years ago.
“With Red Bull it was very close,” Kaká told SI.com. “In July 2012, they went to Madrid and made an offer to Real Madrid, and Real Madrid said OK. I said OK as well. But we just had two days to close the deal, and in two days it was impossible, because there were a lot of contracts and things to see, and the window closed. I said maybe in December we can start to talk again. So in December I started to play for Real Madrid, and Real Madrid didn’t want to sell in that moment. I waited until the next market, and in the next market I went to Milan. So Milan and then São Paulo, and the moment arrives now [in Orlando].”
While Kaká has dealt with some injuries in recent years, he was in good form during a recent loan to São Paulo (the club where he started his career), and he has come back into the picture on the Brazilian national team under the new/old manager Dunga, who called him up for two games last fall.
Kaká said he hopes to play in this summer’s Copa América, too.
The key factor in Kaká’s arrival in Orlando was club owner Flávio Augusto da Silva, who first signed Kaká before World Cup 2014 as an ambassador for WiseUp, his English-language tutoring company. By the end of 2013, Augusto had cashed out on his company and told Kaká he was thinking of buying an MLS team.
“He did a lot of things to understand if it was a good idea,” said Kaká, who now speaks pretty good English (his fourth language) despite his regular apologies for it. “In the end, he said, ‘I will buy the franchise, I will build the team. So if you can, I would like you in my team.’ I wanted to have the possibility to play with a friend’s team, so I decided to play for Orlando.”
The way things appear to be going with Orlando City’s arrival in MLS, Kaká made the right choice. Already the team has begun construction of a new soccer stadium that will be ready for 2016. As many as 60,000 fans are expected for the home opener at the Citrus Bowl against fellow debutante NYCFC. And manager Adrian Heath has started assembling a roster that includes promising talents and MLS winners in Amobi Okugo, Aurélien Collin and Tally Hall, among others.
And while it’s not ideal that Kaká will have to play on artificial turf for one season in the Citrus Bowl, he’s not going all diva and refusing to play on the fake stuff.
“I think it’s not a problem,” he said.
In fact, he said he’s hoping Orlando makes the playoffs, which isn’t unreasonable in an MLS East where six of 10 teams will qualify this season. And he’s bringing with him a wide-eyed curiosity about traveling to places around the U.S. for the first time. On his L.A. trip it was dinner with his wife in Malibu. (“Fantastic!” he said.)
“I want to see a lot of the places I’ve never been before,” he explained. “I’ve been to Miami, Orlando, New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. But I’d like to know Seattle, San Francisco and other places. Every city will be special.”
For Orlando, Year One in MLS has the potential to be just as special.