ORLANDO, Fla. – Much about Major League Soccer is still new for Nani. Having signed a Designated Player deal in February, Orlando City SC’s newest superstar arrival has only lived in the United States for a few months and though he remembers watching the NBA version of the All-Star Game once or twice many years ago, his glittering European career featured few scenarios comparable to his first MLS All-Star experience.
The Portuguese attacker is having fun just the same this week, serving as the de facto host of this week’s festivities as the Lions’ sole All-Star representative and one of several global household names on the roster.
“It’s always nice to play with great players,” the Portuguese attacker told reporters with a grin on Monday after the All-Stars’ first training session, held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Disney World. “So many experienced players who’ve won a lot in their careers.
“It’s been fantastic, the environment is good, all the players have been great,” he added, answering questions from a multinational media pack in English, Spanish and Portuguese. “For us it’s very easy to communicate and have some conversations because most of the players, we’ve been playing so many times against each other so many years and we always have something to talk about … it’s a different style from our club and we get the opportunity to talk about different things and try to get fans. I think it’s good.”
Asked about his experiences in the league so far, Nani highlighted MLS’s speed and intensity and spoke approvingly of the balance that makes most every game a test even for top teams.
“MLS, it’s competitive, I’m enjoying it a lot,” he said. “In many ways I’ve had to improve, to adapt. For my first months, I am enjoying a lot and I hope to continue like this.”
Nani will draw a bit more of the spotlight than most of his All-Star peers thanks to his participation in the new Skills Challenge on Tuesday night (8 pm ET | How to Watch), where he’ll represent the host club alongside teammates Sebastian Mendez and Chris Mueller vs. Carlos Vela's All-Stars team and an Atletico Madrid side of Koke, Joao Felix and Hector Herrera.
“We know that we face very good adversaries,” said Nani of the Skills Challenge, smiling as he predicted an Orlando City triumph on home soil. “But for us, it’s a competition to win. It’s fun, a little bit different … the skills challenge, it’s a fun event to see.”
The former Manchester United star has been sharp in front of goal thus far in his MLS career, notching eight goals and eight assists in his first 19 matches, though he believes he can do the most damage in the passing competition of the Skills Challenge.
He and his fellow competitors will have to keep their nerve as they perform not only in front of a global audience watching via live broadcasts and streams across multiple platforms and nations, but also an array of curious teammates and MLS colleagues taking in the action among the crowd at the WWOS Complex.
For a player who's won the European Championship, the UEFA Champions League, four English Premier League titles and was bestowed with the title of Commander of the Order of Merit – one of the highest civilian honors awarded by the Portuguese government – that’s just everyday living.
“Nah,” he laughed, “I think that pressure is in everything you do in your life, so you must deal with that!”