ORLANDO, Fla. – The smile remained as broad as ever, but the sadness at the imminent parting was still clear as Kaká announced on Wednesday that he won’t return to Orlando City SC following this season.
The Brazilian World Cup winner and former FIFA World Player of the Year is seeking “a new challenge,” but he has yet to decide what that will be, and whether it will be on or off the field.
After turning down a one-year deal to play with the Lions, the likelihood is that Kaká will look to return to Brazil to be closer to his children. He also insisted that reports of soccer being too much “pain” for him at the age of 35 were untrue.
Instead, the Orlando City captain and first marquee signing in club history left the door open to coming back to Orlando at some stage, perhaps “as an ambassador, to work as a GM or as a coach. I hope in the future our paths can cross again.”
Kaká now only has two regular season games remaining with Orlando. His home finale will be on Sunday against Columbus before the Lions travel to Philadelphia to take on the Union in their last match of the season on Oct. 22. There’s also a fundraising match in early November to help beleaguered Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
“I will be here to honor this jersey to the end,” he said.
For his fellow Brazilians, majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva and CEO Alex Leitão, there was the sense that Wednesday was the end of an era. The trio have enjoyed a great friendship in Orlando, with Kaká brought in to be the face of the club from Day 1 of their MLS existence.
“We were friends first, and the business relationship came after, so it is sad this cycle is finishing, but it is time,” he explained. “They trusted that I could be an important piece of this project, to establish Orlando City in MLS and to have a leadership role.
“Of course, one of my dreams was to make the playoffs and maybe win the [MLS] Cup, but there is no disappointment with that. We can’t control results. But everything I could do as a professional, being here and fighting for this club, I think I did.”
Kaká also admitted that the strain of being apart from his two children – they returned to Brazil following his painful divorce in 2015 – had been tough to reconcile with his playing career in the US.
“Family is very important for me. Living in a country different from my kids, this is something I have to put on the balance as well,” he added. “But I think what I need right now is a new challenge and new motivation, so this is the most important thing for me, and what I am basing my final decision [on].”
Both player and front office insist that the decision is so fresh that neither side has yet made any plans for the future. Those will come in the next few weeks. For now, both wanted to pay tribute to a rare relationship of mutual respect.
“For me, I want to thank Flavio and Alex, and everybody with the team, to [allow me] to be part of this since the beginning,” Kaká said. “This journey was incredible.”
Da Silva was also quick to honor the departing superstar. “We had three amazing years together,” he said. “We have built in three years what takes some clubs almost a century and he played a very important part in that. Kaká had multiple choices when he decided to come to Orlando, but he decided to help us build this club and to help build soccer in America.”
Leitão added that the club’s formative years will forever be linked to Kaká’s exploits and personality. “I think we as a club were very fortunate to have someone of this character with us and I hope people understand what bringing a guy like this here really means, that they know his history and how big he is for this sport.
“He is one of the best players who ever played this game. Period. And we’ve had him here for three years. We will definitely want to honor him in the best possible way, both on Sunday and also on Nov. 4 [the provisional date for the Puerto Rico game].”
Head coach Jason Kreis had a similar message from the team’s training ground on Wednesday afternoon. “It is obviously a sad day,” he acknowledged. “Kaká is the face of the franchise, a terrific player and captain, but top of all this is the fact he is a terrific person.
“It has been nothing short of spectacular. Often times the general public has the feeling that athletes at the highest level are selfish and egotistical, and he has renewed my faith that that is not the case. He is a giver, he is humble and he just enjoys doing what he does. With all of that, he has been an absolute pleasure to work with.”
Kreis also singled out three moments of goal-scoring magic from the Brazilian this season that will live long in his memory.
“The stunning goal away at Atlanta [in the 1-1 draw on July 29], the home goal against Kansas City [in a 2-2 draw on May 13] when he brought the ball down, moved past a defender and just slotted the ball home with relative ease, and then the upper corner goal last month against New England [in a 6-1 win] were three very special goals.
“But they still don’t measure up to the greeting I receive every single day from a player like him, that warm ‘Hello’ in the morning and a handshake. To me, that means more than any of those soccer memories.”