As Orlando City prepares for its MLS season opener against NYCFC on Saturday, the Lions are hoping that the league’s 24th season–and their fifth–is finally the one that ends with them in the playoff picture. This target, however, sits at the peak of a tall mountain for James O’Connor’s side, as many steps need to be taken in order to make the postseason. Last year, simply put, was brutal. Some stats for context: in 2018, Orlando finished last in the Eastern Conference with the second-worst attack in the league (43 goals scored) and produced an even worse defensive mark–conceding a league-record 74 goals. Its goal differential of -31 was also the worst in all of MLS.
As a result, the club needed to react and make significant changes in the offseason. That meant offloading 15 players and turning to multiple acquisition methods to augment the team, which included looking within MLS, turning to USL and the SuperDraft and dabbling into the international market.
But no arrival to Orlando seems more intriguing than that of Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha, otherwise known as Nani, who is ready to begin a new journey in North America and help his team in its playoff quest.
“I’m raring to go," Nani told SI.com. "Naturally, we need to do better this season, be strong, competitive, resilient, and then eventually reach the playoffs.” The 32-year-old Nani speaks four languages, but he is currently more comfortable in Spanish than in English, so he opts for a change to continue the conversation.
“It’s still only been a short period to fully get to know my teammates, but the little I’ve seen has been great. They are focused, determined and ready to compete. It really makes me happy to see this kind of squad,” he says, speaking more freely after making the switch.
The Portuguese star comes to MLS from Sporting CP on a on a three-year Designated Player deal after a free transfer, and he says the decision was about helping both himself and Sporting, which is dealing with serious financial issues and could not handle his contract any longer. Sporting didn’t want him to leave, but given the situation, it had to listen to offers from abroad and respected Nani’s decision.
“I heard the offer from Orlando and the club’s project, and I was very impressed," said Nani, the club's most high-profile player since Kaká left after the 2017 season. "I thought about it and decided this would be the best move for me. There was a sense of urgency and everything was settled in a few days this month … and here we are.”
Orlando already had the league's maximum of three DPs with Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan and Josue Colman, but the assumption is that the club will use allocation money to pay down the budget charge of one in order to make sure its stays within the league’s roster restrictions by Friday's compliance deadline.
“When we got the opportunity to bring in someone of Nani’s quality, it brings tremendous excitement for all the fans,” O’Connor said last week at the winger’s official presentation. “He’s a world-class player who has had an incredible career, so I think for us we need to be very sensible about how we utilize his skill set and maximize the opportunity we have with a player like this.”
Nani brings an impressive resume to MLS: four Premier League titles, two League Cups, a Champions League title with Manchester United and the 2016 European Championship with Portugal, the latter of which he calls the most memorable of his career.
“There is no doubt about it. Winning and finishing off the final with the captain’s armband was an incredible responsibility, and lifting the trophy for my country was my greatest achievement,” said Nani, who has made 112 appearances for Portugal–but none since the 2017 Confederations Cup–and wore the armband that day at the Stade de France after Cristiano Ronaldo was forced off with a first-half injury.
The times he spent in Manchester, however, are spoken with a tremendous amount of warmth and nostalgia.
“Being at United was the best time of my life," Nani said. "We won so many trophies and achieved so much and it’s a memory I’ll carry with me forever. I learned so much, not just how to be a player but how to be a full-rounded person.”
Nani unsurprisingly wastes little time in bringing up Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who brought him to England and helped balance his flair with technical discipline.
“He is the most important coach of my career. He helped me, and all of my teammates, understand how to do things the right way, on and off the pitch,” Nani said.
After stops at Valencia, Fenerbahce, Lazio and Sporting, Nani is now wearing the purple of Orlando City, and he has to adapt to yet another new league–one that is evolving as younger talent from South and Central America plays a key role for many squads, Orlando's included. As a result, questions linger whether, despite his talents, he can deliver well into his 30s. Given how well his former Man United teammate Wayne Rooney did with D.C United last season and the ever-imposing performances of another ex-United star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 2019 could prove to be another year where both the aging European star and the younger South American stars coexist. Orlando’s squad, after all, will need more than an in-form Nani to make it to the postseason, but his talent and experience are important pieces of the club’s puzzle.
“His leadership will be something we’ll be able to utilize,” said O’Connor.
One bonus for Orlando is that Nani will be able to hit the ground running. Instead of signing after a period of inactivity, or during the summer window in which he would be in preseason form, Nani linked up for the last stretch of Orlando's season preparations by leaving Sporting in the middle of its campaign.
“Let’s not forget, I’m arriving from the Portuguese league where I was playing,” said Nani, who in 21 matches with Sporting this season had eight goals and five assists in all competitions. “So physically I feel great. I feel good.”
In the same comfortable manner in which he has glided down the wing over the years–including against the USA in the 2014 World Cup, when he scored early in a group-stage draw–the Portugal star seems at ease, relaxed in his new surroundings, and all that’s left is for the new season to start.
“I like this city, the weather is great and my teammates and everyone at the club is so friendly," Nani said. "I am very, very happy.”
By the time the playoffs arrive, his hope is that Orlando City fans will feel the same way.