Call me naive, but I still think in 2014 it was a stroke of brilliance for Orlando City to sign Kaka. I know his time in Orlando City purple didn't result in championships or a playoff appearance, but he is such a great global ambassador of the game I think his contract was money well spent on establishing the Orlando City brand in MLS.
Loved by fans across the league, respected by teammates and opponents alike, Kaka brought a measure of experience and gravitas to the team, and that was good. But aside from Kaka the entire organization seemed to be a whirlwind of chaos and distractions during his tenure.
Front Office Turmoil
In three full MLS seasons, Orlando City has had three General Managers, two coaches, and has seen the entire brain trust that brought the club to the league evaporate. Original MLS GM Paul McDonough was pushed aside and gobbled up by Atlanta United (who look like geniuses with that hire). The club's founding coach, Adrian Heath, was fired in the middle of the 2016 season. And club Founding President Phil Rawlins stepped away from day-to-day operations during the last off-season.
Perhaps at the risk of alienating fans from the USL Pro era, Orlando City should have thanked and fired everyone after the end of the 2014 season and started from scratch. But I honestly think the Front Office started tinkering too quickly. The 2015 season ended strong, with a solid winning streak and a team that seemed poised to improve in 2016. And now the roster looks like a complete mish-mash of players from different eras of management that seem like they can't get on the same mental page with each other match after match.
I've also long suspected that our ownership suffers from a little of the same syndrome as Jerry Jones or Daniel Snyder, with a fanboy's infatuation for favorite players that they want to see on the club's roster. I'm a fan, and I tweeted yesterday in response to a story on MLS.com that I'd love to see the team pursue James Rodriguez from Colombia. But any coach or GM that announces they signed a big-name player just because some damned fan with a blog said to do so is not the kind of coach I want anywhere near my team!
Roster Redux and Injury Bugs
On the pitch, the players (including Kaka) suffered a fair share of injuries. The Captain missed several games in each of his three seasons due to injury, and the rate of hamstring and ACL injuries in 2015 and 2106 that the club suffered was frightening. And we never made it through an entire season without a significant player either going down from injury or leaving the team for other reasons. In 2015 it was Kevin Molino whose injury in May kept him out for the rest of the season. The bright side of that was Cyle Larin's Rookie of the Year performance. And in 2016 we lost crowd favorite Adrian Winter, who decided to return home to Europe shortly after becoming an uncle. And then there was 2017, which was the strangest year of all.
First was the news that both Kevin Molino and Brek Shea were gone from the team before the first match. Then after a strong start the wheels just fell off. The odd part is that the longest winning streak of the season happened in the seven matches that Kaka missed with injury. Defensively the team started very strong. The offense struggled to score, but the defense played so well that the team raced to the top of the table before April was over.
But before the mid-season transfer window, the team lost another strong contributor in MPG when they couldn't agree to salary terms. MPG was like the Energizer bunny, scurrying and racing all over the pitch, drawing fouls and winning free kicks for the team through a combination of scrappy play and using his diminutive size as an advantage. And then we suffered a new obstacle as we saw multiple players miss matches due to suspensions for off-the-pitch arrests. It was a very frustrating season.
So I wasn't surprised when Kaka announced he would not be back for 2018. He announced that he no longer felt the passion for the game. The shenanigans this team pulled in 2017 was enough to make fans feel like gameday was a task to be endured rather than a reason to celebrate, so I can only imagine what it was like to be a player. I feel sad that we didn't get to see the team make the playoffs with Kaka, and that's as much because of seeing the the joy he would take in helping lead the team to the postseason as anything else. I'll keep following the team and going to the matches, so I'll get a chance to see them find success some day. But there will never be another Kaka, the superstar with the heart of gold and the boyish grin that you can't help smiling with when you see it.
Thank you, Kaka, for sharing your talent and love of the game with the fans here in Orlando. May the future bring you fulfillment, success, and all the happiness you desire.