Kaka interview: “We are changing the image of MLS”

Multi-million dollar pay packets, winter sun, and a chance to escape the scrutiny of tabloid tittle-tattle.

The level of competition in MLS may have been questioned over the last decade, but the lure of moving across the pond has been understandably appealing for some of the biggest names in European football.

When individual and collective objectives have been achieved, how does a footballer spend their final few years? Do they drop down the leagues and become a target for hatchetmen? Or do they sample a completely different life in America?

It’s perhaps no surprise that a conveyor belt of household names have boarded a plane across the Atlantic. Since David Beckham became a trailblazer a decade ago, the list of those who have competed in MLS has become a who’s who of Premier League, Serie A and La Liga greats – Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Frank Lampard, Kaka et al.

The latter is preparing for his third season at Orlando City and, as he reflects on his life in the US, the Brazilian is so relaxed, he could be lying on the beach basking in the Florida sun. There is no hint of him missing life in the camera lens at AC Milan or Real Madrid.

But Kaka believes he will be among the last generation of 30-somethings heading to MLS at the tail end of their careers for a final pay packet. He is convinced that the ‘retirement league’ is changing.

“When I came here, the image of the league was that old players came here for retirement,” he told me at an exclusive event to preview the new MLS campaign. “Now, we are changing that image. A lot of young players are joining this league – young South Americans who can enjoy it. The technical and tactical level of the league is increasing and the numbers are showing that is true.”

Certainly, there have been few – if any – household names penning contracts during the MLS off-season. If that remains the case during the summer, then the competition will genuinely be taking a different route.

Instead of signing recruits to boost shirt sales, many MLS outfits are increasingly looking towards Kaka’s native South America for players who have their best years still ahead of them.

The heavyweight clubs in both Mexico and Argentina, for instance, are strapped for cash and struggling to match the wages on offer further north on the continent. The objective for MLS is to eventually prove just as tempting as Europe for those in their mid-20s.

It’s been noticeable, too, that while Chinese Super League wages are catnip for mercenaries, clubs in China are still signing players at their peak – including Kaka’s fellow Brazilian Oscar. They aren’t purely concentrating on those in their 30s, as used to be the case.

Kaka has an open-minded take on the situation: “Maybe the guys who want to go to China now (such as Oscar) will start to come here. That would be perfect!”

Kaka’s contract at Orlando is due to expire at the end of this season and his future is already a source of speculation over whether he will then enjoy a third spell at boyhood club Sao Paulo.

He appeared to suggest as much during an interview with a Brazilian talk show during the autumn. But the 34-year-old insists he was misquoted (a favourite footballer’s excuse on all continents, it seems) and he is keeping his options open over extending his deal at Orlando.

“It was a misunderstanding. I’m very happy here,” he said. “I have to start from an idea and my idea is to stay here. This is the last year of this contract, but my idea is to stay here. Of course we never know what can happen during this season, but my idea is to stay in the league.”

Nevertheless, Kaka’s age is beginning to take its toll after a series of niggling injuries limited him to 24 appearances in 2016. He spent the close season training in his native Brazil and admits he is having to put in extra work to remain available for selection.

“I’m working on that because it’s important. For me personally, I don’t want to miss any games. If I’m in good shape, then we can get good results. I need to be ready.”

The acid test of Kaka’s extra fitness work will be whether it can impact on Orlando’s fortunes after they missed out on a place in the end of season play-offs in 2016 by a solitary point, following an eighth-placed finish in the Eastern Conference.

Former Everton midfielder Adrian Heath paid for the club’s struggles with his job midway through the campaign when he was relieved of his duties as Orlando boss. Heath was eventually replaced by ex-USA international Jason Kreis, who triumphed in a modest five of his 14 games at the helm.

But Kaka was impressed by the initial modifications from Kreis and believes his first full season in charge can see Orlando make their maiden appearance in the MLS Cup play-offs.

“We only had Jason for a few months at the end of last season,” he added.

“The month that I worked with him, he showed a lot of good things and tried to work in how he wanted the team to play. We saw a bit of a change of philosophy. He wanted more pressing and to get in the wide areas. But it’s difficult when you take over a team in the middle of the season. Now it will be different.”

Kaka interview: “We are changing the image of MLS”
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