ORLANDO, Fla. – Fast, physical and exciting – that’s the verdict on MLS 2016 as Julio Baptista prepares for an Orlando City debut at Philadelphia on Friday night (7 pm ET; UniMás, UDN), having joined the team full-time over the weekend thanks in large part to his teammate and long-time soccer pal Kaká.
The Brazilian striker – otherwise known as ‘The Beast’ for his power-packed physique – is likely to be on the bench against the Union, as he hasn’t started a game since late 2014 with Cruzeiro, but he insists he is well-informed and totally prepared for a new chapter in his 16-year career.
Baptista, 34, has battled through more than a year of injury problems to get back on the field, and he is anxious to make the most of the opening with the Lions, who will likely be without hamstring injury victim Cyle Larin.
“Obviously I knew that the league was growing a lot, and I was very excited to have this opportunity,” he said through the team’s interpreter. “Orlando had their first year last year, and they are also growing a lot, so it was a very good opportunity for me to come here and join my friend Ricardo [Kaká], who is very close to me, and that makes it much easier for me in adapting to this new team.
“Once I got here, I noticed how the team is solid defensively, but also how once it connects offensively, it can show its results on the field. Personally, I feel fit but for Friday’s game. It depends on the coach’s decision, and I respect that. I am happy to be on the bench, and hopefully for the next home game [against New England on April 17] I can be available and 100-percent fit to start the match.”
In the absence of Larin, it was notable at Wednesday’s training session how Baptista was the focus of many of the attacking drills, and he put the ball in the back of the net with great regularity – testimony to his 106 goals with Sao Paulo, Sevilla, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Roma, Malaga, Cruzeiro and Brazil. He acknowledged he owes a big debt to Kaká for opening the door to MLS, and he is very much looking forward to resuming a partnership with his fellow Brazilian, having begun with the same team back in 2001.
“That obviously helps me a lot,” Baptista admitted. “We started our careers together in Sao Paulo, and now we’re together on this team, which is very exciting. [Having Kaká here] helps me on a day-to-day basis, obviously on small details, and when you have to go and find a house and to adapt in a new society and in daily life. It has been a big change for me, but I think he is excited now I am part of this team, and I am [motivated] being able to work with him again.”
Baptista admits he has been preparing himself for several months and studying the league in advance, including being on the sideline to watch last Sunday’s 4-1 win over Portland.
“Obviously I have noticed how physical the league is, how you have to run a lot and how every player has to fight in every game,” he explained. “But I knew that in order to make this one of my options, I needed to prepare myself in the winter, and that’s what I did.”
Head coach Adrian Heath acknowledges Friday’s game may be just too soon for a full debut of soccer’s own ‘Beast Mode,’ but he is ready to give him some minutes against the Union.
“He has been working hard, getting fitter by the day. It is day-to-day with people like Julio,” Heath said. “He has been training on his own for a few weeks, but it’s nothing like the intensity of training with the group, and the game’s another stage on from there.
“But we will come up with a game plan against Philly. We have a few options in mind, and we’ll see what we can do with Julio after another full day’s training. But he is working hard.”