How Nani ascended into rarefied air for Orlando City at MLS is Back Tournament | Charles Boehm

Nani - July 31 - close up - hand to ear

In retrospect, Nani laid down the most obvious marker after the LAFC game.

After netting the final penalty kick in Orlando City’s MLS is Back quarterfinal shootout win over the Supporters’ Shield holders — redemption for his saved spot kick earlier in the match — the Portuguese star raced around the pitch in celebration, high-stepping with a hand cupped to his ear like a wrestler whipping up a crowd, his jubilant teammates following in his wake.

It provoked a kerfuffle with some in the LAFC camp, but Nani drove home his point in the postgame press conference like planting a flag in the turf.

“Pay attention to our team with good eyes, and give the respect of the football, because we've been working hard,” he said. “We know we are a team who are improving our football.”

Nani has won big things over his glittering career: A UEFA European championship, the Champions League and league titles in England and Portugal, among many other honors. Why greet a narrow quarterfinal victory in a one-off tournament so euphorically?

The easy answer is that this is a world-class competitor without an off switch, someone with a serial addiction to success. And I suspect it goes further still. Lions coach Oscar Pareja has hailed Nani’s commitment, telling reporters that his Designated Player is “training every single day like a rookie coming into the league,” bringing an intensity that lifts the entire squad and a self-belief that’s now surging through the club.

“Obviously he has tremendous quality, and he brings a lot in the form of leadership and just his stature,” Chris Mueller, who typically works the Orlando right flank across from Nani, told media on a Monday conference call. “He brings us confidence on the field, knowing that we have someone like that leading us and out on the front of the battlefield with us as well.

“I think that he's got a different mentality and different hunger about him this year than I've seen maybe in previous years.”

Nani was productive in his first MLS season, bagging 12 goals and 10 assists in 2019. But it wasn’t enough to lift the Lions to that elusive first playoff appearance, and both his track record and his salary numbers left some wanting more.

This year he’s responded with something closer to outright dominance, playing a part in five game-winning goals at the MLS is Back Tournament and exuding a swagger that demands respect from opponents.

Every club wants their DPs to perform at virtuoso level right from the jump. Nico Lodeiro led the Seattle Sounders to their first MLS Cup trophy less than six months after his arrival. Josef Martinez has posted gaudy numbers since Day 1 in Atlanta. Zlatan Ibrahimovic famously won the first-ever El Trafico for the LA Galaxy in deliriously dramatic fashion mere days after getting off the plane in Los Angeles, a first act to two seasons of astronomical scoring output from the Swede.

Circumstances don’t always foster such immediate impact, however, and it’s been a slower burn for Nani. With Pareja building a more stable and cohesive environment around him, the former Manchester United man now finds himself in a better position to not only succeed, but shine, and he seems to have taken it as his cue to ascend to the most rarefied air in MLS — the place where true superstars turn heads, win games and chase trophies in equal measure.

“He has a lot of talent, and something that is key in this time of the league, which is the hunger to compete. You can tell that he came to the league and to the team trying to put a mark on the history of Orlando and the league, and he's fighting for it,” said Diego Valeri, who’s brought something similar to the Portland Timbers over his storied career in the Rose City, ahead of his team’s MLS is Back Tournament Final presented by Wells Fargo clash Tuesday (8:30 pm ET | ESPN/Deportes, TSN, TVA Sports 2) with Nani and Orlando.

“Last season he started to show that and in this tournament was brilliant. He’s showing his his talent and his level of competition.”

Orlando’s rise has been and will continue to be fueled by a collective approach. MLS’s history (including LA’s lack of hardware during Zlatan’s tenure) underlines the importance of that. Yet the past also points to the enormous boost that an elite talent like Nani can bring to a spirited, well-run squad.

He understands now what is required of him, and his teammates recognize where he can take them. That’s a powerful combination.