Kaka's passion still burning strong in Orlando after latest injury comeback
SAN JOSE, California -- As goals go, Kaka's late strike against the Colorado Rapids on April 29 was the soccer equivalent of a two-foot putt. Cyle Larin's shot had deflected off goalkeeper Zac MacMath, then off the post and rolled tantalizingly across the goal line. Kaka was left to tap the ball in and Orlando City's 2-0 victory over the Rapids was made safe.
Yet the Brazilian's euphoric celebration seemed to dwarf the goal's meaning. This is after all a Ballon d'Or and World Cup winner who has scored critical goals for some of the biggest clubs in the world, not to mention the Brazil national team. Yet Kaka leaped up onto the advertising boards, and was within easy reach of the capo stand in front of supporters' section of Orlando City Stadium.
After embracing the capo Ben-Hur style, Kaka let out a primal scream in celebration, as the frustration of an eight-week layoff due to a hamstring injury evaporated.
"It was a special game for me, because it was my first real game at the new stadium," Kaka said in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. "I had eight minutes in the first game, got injured and after eight weeks I came back. When I scored that goal, it was just something that I really wanted. And I saw the supporters there and went into their arms to celebrate because I really felt that goal.
"I think it's more because I'd been out for eight weeks. You never know what the situation is when you're coming back. One day the injury hurts, the next you feel better. It's a hard period, but after that to score, it was just this emotion that came out. I just wanted to celebrate the goal, the win, everything."
It's the kind of moment that still resonates in MLS. The league has witnessed enough designated players who were on cruise control to invite a healthy dose of skepticism about their motivation. Even the original designated player, David Beckham, went through an extended period where the LA Galaxy were far from his highest priority, and the fans let him know about it. Of course, Beckham came good in the end, but every DP thereafter needed to pass a "show me you care" test. Kaka, not for the first time, passed that exam. The passion is still there.
"Of course, there's a lot of targets for a game: the win, three points, the playoffs and a lot of things," he said. "But my real motivation is to do something that I really love. When I score a goal like that after a tough situation, I want to show everybody how I love the game, how I love to be there and have these emotions."
Of course, while the 35-year-old's heart and mind may not be in doubt, his body has been. Injuries have eaten away at his availability to a degree: 28 appearances in 2015 dropped to 24 a year later. He's already missed five games this year with the aforementioned hamstring injury, an ailment made all the more painful in that it occurred early in the season opener with his parents and children present. Every time Kaka is laid low, the climb to come back gets a little steeper.
"There are some days I wake up and I'm like, 'Oh my god, I have to do therapy and then do it again and exercise and do the same things,'" he said. "Some days it's really tough. But every time I get injured, I really get strong and want to get back on the field and do what I want to do and love to do. That is something that is keeping me motivated, and why I keep coming back."
Kaka's pain has been eased by Orlando's play this season. Wednesday's 1-1 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes saw the Lions register their 20th point of the season. While Orlando has cooled a bit lately, taking just two points from its past four games, last year it wasn't until June 25 that the Lions reached 20 points. While there are still many games to play, a playoff spot seems well within reach.
Kaka also seems to have built a good rapport with manager Jason Kreis. Last year there were reports that the Brazilian's relationship with Kreis' predecessor, Adrian Heath, was rocky at times. But with Kreis it appears that the communication lines are wide open.
When asked if he would ever consider being a coach, Kaka laughs: "No. I don't know if in the future I want to go back to the field, and be a coach, but today, I think it's not possible in my mind.
"My relationship with Jason, it's just so we can exchange some ideas. He's a very good guy as well, open to other ideas. And sometimes he sees something that we are not seeing, and sometimes we as players see something they are not seeing. This is something that we are doing very well."
There is something of a teacher in Kaka, though, a trait he no doubt picked up from his mother Simone, who was a school teacher back in Sao Paulo. He estimates that OCSC are operating at about 60 to 70 percent of their capabilities, and insists he does what he can to impart wisdom to his teammates and help them unlearn a lot of "bad habits" that they've picked up along the way.
"Of course, I learn a lot of things from these guys as well, but I have to teach them some tactical things, some positioning," he said. "'Try to do this, try to do that.' When you can help and you see them try to do it, it's very good."
Orlando's biggest improvement has come on the defensive side of things, thanks in part to the arrival of U.S. international defender Jonathan Spector -- though Kaka thinks the entire team has improved in this area. The upside is in continuing to absorb Kreis' philosophy of slick passing and defensive solidity.
"I think we are doing good things, but most of the improvements, it's to make the good things automatic," Kaka said. "And I think Jason is doing very good, because every day he's trying to give us the same work. And every day we are repeating that. It becomes automatic. So you can see the team playing sometimes, I know where my teammates are because we are doing this every day. To attack, to defend, it's the same thing. When things become more automatic, we are creating this higher level."
Kaka's contract is up at the end of the year. He said that so far there haven't been any discussions in that regard, though he has made it clear he wishes to carry on playing in Orlando.
"I think we will arrive at the right moment to discuss that," he said.
Kaka has been in the right place at the right time on the field his entire life. With his love for the game still going strong, it looks set to continue.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.