Carlisle: Kaka is Feeling Awesome in MLS - Soccer Drills and Skills |

Carlisle: Kaka is Feeling Awesome in MLS

SANFORD, Fla. — At first glance, Kaka looks to be a man with no more worlds left to conquer.

He is a World Cup winner with Brazil, and he won a UEFA Champions League medal with AC Milan. There are Serie A and La Liga titles in his trophy cabinet and a slew of personal honors. He is the last player to win what is now known as the FIFA Ballon d’Or before guys named Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo started dominating the award.

So as Kaka, 34, walks off the field after a training session for current club Orlando City SC, one wonders what drives him to subject his body to the rigors of professional soccer, especially in a league as physical as MLS. Sure, the competitive fire that has allowed the Brazilian to play for some of the best teams in the world like Sao Paulo, AC Milan and Real Madrid isn’t so easily quenched, but there is more. As he stands on the side of the practice field, there is a humility and grounded-ness that shines through and allows him to still take joy from the game.

“When I started to play, I just started for fun, and I don’t want to lose that,” he says. “So I just play for fun. It became my profession, my career, everything — I earn money with that. But I don’t want to lose it and I’m not losing the pleasure to play and have fun.

“It’s not easy. I have to say it’s hard, it’s work. I have to put some targets in life, in my career to grow and work towards them. This is what is my motivation. Every day it’s the hard work here in my head to achieve that.”

The mind can’t live without the body, however, and these days, Kaka’s 6-foot-1 frame doesn’t always cooperate. Orlando has played nine games so far this season, and Kaka has been on the field for only four of them. He insists that injuries are out of his control, can happen at any time and are an accepted risk of his profession. But he has high expectations and so does his coach. Orlando manager Adrian Heath says he has “no fears” about Kaka’s physical state.

kaka is feeling awesome in mls

“I expect him to play more than he did last year, and I know he’ll be a bigger influence this year,” Heath says.

Heath is no doubt counting on Kaka’s still-impressive technical prowess and ability to read the game to push his side forward. But there is another benefit as well. The more time Kaka spends on the field, the more he is able to impart his accumulated wisdom on those around him.

“They all know what the plan is, but sometimes younger players, in the heat of a game, get so wrapped up in it. They sort of lose the plan, and actually with their enthusiasm they start to do other things,” Heath said. “I think Kaka is the reassuring word going, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is what we do — let’s stick to it.'”

Kaka asserts that he’s learning too, especially when it comes to coping with the physical demands of MLS. But there are tactical considerations as well. He remarks that when he played in Italy, everything was tactical. Now he finds himself trying to meld that with the more physically robust game in MLS.

“It’s not just about running,” he says. “It is about running in the right direction and with some good advice from the coach, the experienced players, it makes the difference.”

The role of teacher is one that runs in Kaka’s blood. His mother, Simone, was a schoolteacher when he was growing up in Sao Paulo, and he says that in Orlando he has taken on a similar role. And he can instantly recall the players who had the biggest influence on his career; a pair of AC Milan legends in Cafu and Paolo Maldini, as well as Sao Paulo goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni.

At first, the list seems somewhat incongruous. A pair of defenders and a goalkeeper? Wasn’t there a playmaker in there who Kaka took some pointers from? He insists that they passed on different kinds of lessons.

“They were the best teachers that I had because they won everything that they could and every day they had the motivation, the behavior and the mood to still keep going, keep playing and working hard. How they handled everything in their career, the pressure. They teach me a lot of good things, and these are things I want to pass onto the other players.”

Do the Orlando players listen?

“Most of them, not all of them,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s normal because some of them think in a different way. They have their way to do things. It’s good. My way is not the right way [for everyone]; it’s just my way, and I try to give them some directions to avoid on-field problems.”

Kaka has influence on young and old alike. Antonio Nocerino, who played alongside the Brazilian at Milan, is a teammate once again in Orlando and still marvels at Kaka’s ability.

“For me it was quite simple to play alongside Kaka,” Nocerino says with the help of a translator. “His game was so much ahead of everyone else. He sees the game before anyone else — therefore it was simple.”

But players like attacker Kevin Molino and defender Tommy Redding are intent on soaking up every scintilla of knowledge they can.

“The first couple of months I was star-struck,” Redding says via telephone. “But after that you realize Kaka is just like everyone else, just one of the other guys on the team. And even though we’re in two different positions, he can still help me in my role because he knows a lot of things I don’t know. Mostly it’s the movement off the ball from the forwards. He shows me the way they move their body. When they’re about to turn back, you’ll see their inside shoulder and they’ll open up their leg, and you know they’re trying to get in behind you — little stuff like that.”

The ability to not look too far ahead is another lesson Kaka has tried to convey. He says he was 15 when his goal of being a professional soccer player crystallized. His goals then seem modest now: to break into the Sao Paulo first team and play one game for Brazil. He took a similar approach throughout the rest of his career.

“There’s no moment where it just clicked and I thought, ‘I can be this great player,'” he says. “When I arrived in Milan, my first year, in my position there was Rivaldo and Rui Costa, and for me I just wanted to be there and improve and just learn from these guys. I started, and [manager] Carlo Ancelotti gave me an opportunity and I played the whole season. I was the best player in the season, we won the Scudetto that year. A lot of things that I didn’t expect or think about, they just happened.”

That ability to stay grounded is rooted in Kaka’s faith, which has gotten him through some difficult moments. The spinal injury he suffered when he was 18 that required surgery is well-documented and is one example of how his faith buoyed him. It is by no means the first. Kaka was slow to develop physically, so much so that when he was 14 he had the body of a 12-year-old. Sao Paulo put him on a training program to compensate. But in the meantime, his youth coach, Pita, a former Sao Paulo player, decided to move him from forward to attacking midfielder.

Kaka recalls: “I improved a lot in that situation, to be more perserverant. My faith helped again, and I changed my position, because before I played forward, like No. 9, and Pita in that case told me, ‘Look, you are so small to play between the big defenders, so I think it’s better that you play midfielder. There’s more space there so you can handle better that situation.’ It was a difficult situation, but I grew up a lot.”

Fast-forward to last year, and Kaka was tested again when he and his wife, Caroline Celico, divorced, with she and their two young children moving back to Brazil. This year, Kaka’s cousin Daniel Leite has moved to the U.S. to keep him company, but the infrequency with which he sees his children is still difficult.

“A lot of questions that I face during the year, my faith helps me to answer and keep playing and keep fighting,” he says. “In my career, in my personal [life], every day I feel like I have my faith tested. Last year was one of those situations, and it still is. This period now, I have to live far away from my kids, and it’s not easy sometimes. Sometimes I just want to hug them and I can’t. But I think a lot of good things are coming for me and for me my kids as well.”

Time is running down on Kaka’s career, of course, but he maintains that there is no sense of urgency, nor is he stepping back and savoring every moment. It all comes back to the game and everything around it, from the preparation during the week to the roar of the crowd on game day.

“I love to come here every morning and stay here with my teammates and improve my game and learn something,” he says. “I actually don’t think about the end of my career, because I don’t know if it’s going to be tomorrow or in three years. I know the time is coming, but I don’t know when it is. When the time comes, I will be ready to start another career, another step in my life.”

At which point, he’ll find a new world to conquer.



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