In the MLS Flight Path series, we're catching up with five big stars of the league to find out more about their journeys around the world through their careers, and how it brought them to North America and MLS. Last time, we heard from the Chicago Fire's Bastian Schweinsteiger.
This time around, we visit with Orlando City SC's Kaká to hear about his star-powered route to the league. Check out this map below of his MLS flight path. Then read all about it below, and check out how his journey compares to Schweinsteiger's.
Kaká rose from the ranks of the Sao Paulo youth system in Brazil to become one of the best Brazilian players of his generation. The 2007 World Football Player of the Year amassed trophies and accolades for both club and country. Along the way he also became a pioneering social media star, becoming the first athlete with 10 million Twitter followers. (Now with 27 million followers, he's still in Twitter's top 50.)
Orlando City SC announced him as the club's first Designated Player in history in 2014, and since then, he's proven a key member of the team, winning MVP in his debut MLS All-Star game in 2015.
To trace Kaká's flight path to Orlando, we start in Brazil, where he played in Sao Paulo's first team and played in the first of his three World Cups as part of the victorious Brazil team in 2002. Then, in 2003, he splashed onto the European stage playing for Serie A giants AC Milan.
In 2009, he moved to one of the most famous clubs in the world, Real Madrid, where he played for four seasons. In 2013, he returned to Milan for a season before officially making the move to MLS.
Here's a look at how travel and soccer has opened his eyes to the diversity of the global game.
Sao Paulo, 2001-2003
Kaká joined the Sao Paulo academy when he was just eight years old, and debuted with the first team in 2001 for the first of three seasons in Brazil's top-flight league.
"I'm very thankful to Sao Paulo for everything they've done for me. I grew up there. My first game as a professional was there. It was very good for me to play in Sao Paulo, to play for a big team in Brazil. While I was there for three years, I went to the World Cup, and then came back for a few months after that. All the things I learned when I was young were there.
My first final was against Botafogo [in 2001], in a championship we call the Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo, which is the top four teams in Sao Paulo against the top four teams from Rio. We played the final, we were losing 1-0, and I came in and scored two goals, and we won 2-1. That was one was my best memory."
Brazil national team and 2002 World Cup win
Kaká earned his first international cap in early 2002 while still a teenager, and at age 20, made the squad that traveled to the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
"For a soccer player, there's nothing like the World Cup. Even more so for a Brazilian. There's always this expectation we'll win. We also go as a favorite. Of course, it's a big responsibility, but it's also good because we also have chances to win. I played in three World Cups, and I had the chance to win one. It's amazing. It's just the best thing as a soccer player to do."
AC Milan, 2003-2009
In 2003, Kaka moved from Sao Paulo to AC Milan, which was just coming off a Champions League win and had a star-studded roster and a legendary-manager-in-the-making in Carlo Ancelotti.
"I wanted to go to Europe because that's where all the big players are, and because of the Champions League. I never had a dream to play on a specific team. I just wanted to play on a big team in Europe. When I had the opportunity to go to Milan, I told Sao Paulo, 'This is a very big chance. I'm 21, I want to go and play there.'
The president at the time told me, 'Look, in your position, they have Rivaldo and Rui Costa. I don't think they're going to play you.' And I said, 'I don't care. I just want to go there and take the opportunity to grow, to improve my football.' And he said, 'Okay, I'm going to sell you, but we're going to leave the door open to you here whenever you want to come back.'
When I arrived in Milan, I just wanted the chance to play. When I got there, everybody was happy, everybody was enjoying Ancelotti's first years. That first year was good also because they had just won the Champions League. I just realized I was in one of the best clubs in the world. Not just in Europe, but in the world! I was very happy, and I said, this is a great opportunity, and I need to take advantage of this.
Serie A is a very tactical league. They really care about the tactics. Some people think that they're defensive teams, but it's that they are just so organized. I think the most important thing I learned is how to move on the field, how to understand the game in a different perspective. It was very good for me."
Real Madrid, 2009-2013
After the 2008-09 season, Milan and Real Madrid entered into talks about the possibility of making Kaká a Galáctico. He debuted with the storied Spanish club in 2009, playing four seasons full of Champions League as well as domestic competition matches — including ones involving their Barcelona rivals.
"When Milan opened the door to sell me for the first time, I denied the offer. I said, 'If you want to sell me, I want to go to Real Madrid.' It was somewhere I wanted to go. When I got there, I found it was an amazing club. It was very good in everything. It's difficult to say why, but I think the most important thing is the history of the club."
In his third season with the club, they won La Liga for the first time since he arrived, under the tutelage of another legend-in-the-making, Jose Mourinho.
"That year was Mourinho was really good, and winning the league was amazing. I remember celebrating with all the supporters when we went back to Madrid. It was a very good experience to work with Mourinho; he's one of the best coaches in the world for sure. He wasn't so easy for me; I wanted to compete and play more games. At the time, he decided to go with other choices. I respected that, but I wanted to play more games and to be on the field."
AC Milan again, 2013-2014
In 2013, Kaká sought a return to Milan — in part, to get more matches in preparation for possible selection to a World Cup hosted the following year in his home country — and his wish was granted.
"I went back and played most of the games. We played Champions League. It was good for me to get back. I needed to play at a place where I could have more chances, where I could make some mistakes. It was good to play there, get back and see the supporters again. I tried my best, and did everything that could, but Filipão [Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari] decided not to call me for the World Cup, and I respect that."
Orlando City SC, 2014-present
Orlando City SC was one of several MLS teams interested in signing him. But Orlando City majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva, who is both Brazilian and friends with Kaká, eventually won out over the other suitors. In 2014, he announced that Kaká would be the club's first Designated Player.
After playing his career in some of the most soccer-crazed nations in the world, the star felt ready to start a new phase of his career in North America.
"I always heard, 'Americans don't like soccer, they don't want soccer here,' that it would never be a good sport here. I saw that as a challenge. I said, 'I want to go play there and show the people that soccer has a lot of good value.'
But a lot of good players came, and I can say for this generation [of European stars who came to MLS], David Villa, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard -- we played in Europe for big teams. The world of soccer knows how we play and what we achieved. When we come here, it's to help, to show everybody that this can be one of the best leagues in the world. It's to help the players here, the development here.
For me, it's very good now. I've been here almost three years, and I'm seeing how this league is growing. The visibility of the league has grown. More people know about soccer. More players are coming. The youth teams are getting better. Everything is getting bigger. They're doing things the right way. It's a long process, but I think it's good, because it's sustainable."
In Kaká's first MLS match, he faced off against David Villa, a rival from their El Clásico past, when the former played for Madrid and the latter played for Bacelona. This time, it was for a new, developing rivalry between teams that entered the league at the same time.
"It's something that's positive, in a good way – we're on the same page, we're trying to help improve the league. Even though we're on different teams, we're trying to do the same thing. I do prefer to play with him, in the All-Star Game. But it's good to face good players that you've faced in Europe."
Meanwhile, Orlando has its own full stadium of excited fans – and Kaká has definitely noticed.
"We are enjoying it so much. It's very good. Every time we play there, we see supporters who now feel that this is their home. And also our home. It's good to be there, the atmosphere is amazing, and everyone's happy to be in the stadium now. It's a little bit smaller, but it feels like we're playing with 100,000 people."