ORLANDO, Fla. – “Two games, maximum.”
That was the verdict from Antonio Nocerino this week as he weighed up how long it will take him to be fully primed and ready to go for a full 90 minutes for Orlando City SC.
Lions fans may not get to see too much of Nocerino on his much-anticipated Lions debut against Chicago Fire on Friday (7 pm ET; UniMas, UDN, MLS LIVE), but he is convinced it won’t be long before they see the best of him.
City head coach Adrian Heath is still weighing up whether the Italian signing will start or, more likely, make an impact off the bench. But there is no doubt Nocerino himself is chomping at the bit, both to prove himself to his new team and just to get playing again – his last start for AC Milan was way back at the end of last August.
It has been a frustrating time for the versatile midfielder. But he sees his arrival in Florida as a new lease on life.
“Right now, I just hope to play,” said Nocerino, via the team’s interpreter. “I really miss the playing field. But, to be [match] fit? To be as fit as I would like to be? That will be two games, maximum.
“I’ve had a great first impression [this week] and I’m very happy to be a part of this group and this club.”
After five days’ training with his new teammates, Nocerino has already demonstrated a keen verve to be involved and add to the increasingly complex Orlando midfield quotient, which will still be without star man Kaká against the Fire due to injury.
“I hope to see him back match fit as soon as possible so he and I, as well as the rest of the team, can perform and hopefully build a great team together,” Nocerino said. “I spoke often with Ricky when I first heard about Orlando’s interest in me. He and I have a splendid relationship, and were often in contact with each other.
“I had an impression that this is a growing league, and I had a great impression because the stadiums are always full. The atmosphere is great, and therefore every match is a spectacle. It’s a growing league, and in my opinion, within three years this will be one of the most popular leagues.”
Nocerino has already made an impression on the Orlando coaching staff, though he admits the 80-plus degree heat of Florida is “a major difference” to Milan – and he'd had to go through his paces without Kaká to help out both in soccer and language terms. But head coach Adrian Heath expects him to slot seamlessly into City's new-look midfield, which now features a 4-3-2-1 formation instead of last season’s 4-2-3-1.
“He has got a great personality,” Heath said. “You’d think he’d been here three years, not three minutes! But he’s going to be a really good addition for us. Obviously he’s a really good footballer, but I didn’t realize his finishing was as good as it was after training yesterday.
“He will be a game-time decision on Friday. You can train out here every day but once you get into the cut and thrust of a game, match fitness is a completely different thing.”
Nocerino admits to keeping a more watchful eye on MLS since both Sebastian Giovinco and Andrea Pirlo started making a significant mark last year, following the exploits of his two countrymen in highlights shows.
“Giovinco I followed a lot. Primarily I watched highlights, because the games were on late at night when I would be sleeping!” he explained. “Playing with Milan, we ended up having a friendly against the LA Galaxy [in 2013], and this fascinated me a lot.
“The United States has always fascinated me, so whenever I had a chance, I would follow it [MLS]. I’m sure a lot of European players will want to come here and play, which is of course a positive opinion on the league overall.”
Orlando’s new import was introduced on the field at halftime of Sunday’s big sellout against Real Salt Lake, and was seriously impressed by what he saw and heard at the Citrus Bowl.
Asked his opinion of the fervor of the purple-clad supporters, his phrase – “Molto passione” – doesn’t need much translating.
“They were spectacular,” Nocerino confirmed. “I would compare it more to maybe England, where stadiums are always full.
“In Italy, unfortunately, this isn’t the case. But certain stadiums, for example Napoli’s, do have this same atmosphere and passionate fans. Not all stadiums in Italy have this warmth about them … so this was a splendid impression for me [on Sunday].”
Now it comes down to whether Heath believes Nocerino is strong enough to start against Chicago, in which case he could well take Kaká’s role in midfield. The coach has warned his men to be fully focused against a Fire team that scored three times at home to New York City on Sunday – albeit while conceding four – with their quick transitions.
“Concentration is going to be the key word, and is one we’ve been using all week,” Heath confirmed. “If we turn the ball over cheaply, we will be in trouble against their counterattack, as the one thing they have is plenty of pace.”