ORLANDO, Fla. – "The Beast" is back on the prowl, and Orlando City SC could be the main beneficiaries as he looks to rekindle a career that seemed to have flamed out in a mixture of injuries and poor form in 2015.
Julio Baptista joined the Lions at the end of March but has had an uphill battle to regain full match fitness after making only a handful of appearances for Cruzeiro in Brazil last year, following impressive stints with some of the top clubs in Spain, England and Italy from 2003-13.
Now after successive games as a goalscorer off the bench for Orlando, including a brilliant strike in last Saturday’s 2-2 draw at home to San Jose, there are distinct signs MLS could be about to see the best of La Bestia.
Here’s how he sums up his MLS experience to date:
MLSsoccer.com: In your personal list of goals, where does Saturday’s strike rank?
JB: It is difficult to put one goal in a list, but the goal on Saturday was a beautiful goal. My first at home is the most important, when you score in front of your fans. But when it is also beautiful for them, I am very happy.
Were you aware it had extra significance on the #OrlandoUnited dedication night?
JB: I definitely felt the same way [as the fans]. The only sad thing was that the team couldn’t seal the victory, it didn’t have the good fortune to take the result. We almost had it in the last minute, but they [San Jose] scored on the last play.
Do you feel fully comfortable here in Orlando now?
JB: I feel fully adapted now having been here for three months. My family has arrived here as well and that helps a lot in the day-to-day of feeling comfortable. But the most important thing for me now is playing regularly, understanding my teammates, and getting that chemistry going. And that is starting to translate on to the field.
In terms of having to come back from almost a year without soccer, do you feel we are now seeing the real Julio Baptista, or is there more work to do?
JB: Obviously when you get injured and you came back from an injury that has taken you off the field for a long time, it’s difficult, and you have doubts that you will be able to get back to the form you had before and that you will be able to do your job. But I have been getting better and I think I am now in form, getting into games and, most importantly, helping the team grow. It is a young team, in only its second season in MLS, and I want to keep working to help the growth of this team, and the city.
From what you have now seen of this team, what do you think are its strengths and possibilities in MLS?
JB: When a team is very young, their results and form alternate a lot. We have had a lot of good games, but also some games where we play OK, and some days where we don’t play that good. Experience gives you that consistency; this team has a lot of ability and skill, and we have showed that on the field sometimes. But the moment we start getting three or four victories in a row, that’s when the team gains in confidence and we will be able to maintain that form. We haven’t had that yet.
After playing in La Liga, the Premier League, and Serie A in both Italy and Brazil, what kind of league have you found MLS to be?
JB: I don’t think you can compare leagues between each other. Each league has its own characteristics and is very particular, but I believe MLS is still growing a lot. It is going to reach that maximum potential and is going to be one of the best, not only because of the league itself but because of the organizations and the teams. The competition is also very level. You don’t have one team dominating all the time and that is very attractive to the fans and people who like to follow soccer. I believe that in three to four years, MLS is going to be one of the top leagues in the world.
Looking at your teammates here, they would all have been new to you with the exception of Kaká. Having seen them in action, how do you rate their potential?
JB: There are four players here who I think have great potential and who could go on to great things, perhaps playing in Europe. Obviously they need to continue maturing and growing their game, but Carlos Rivas, Kevin Molino, Cristian Higuita and Rafa Ramos all have a lot of potential to reach top level.
Having seen Cyle Larin in close-up, what do you see in his game that he needs to work on to get to that top level?
JB: First, I don’t compare myself to Cyle. He is a proper No.9 in the box, while I am more of an attacking mid, that’s how I’ve played for most of my career. I think he needs to learn a lot, especially his movement, but he has the most important thing – which is that attacking threat and innate scoring ability that some of the best players in the world have; that the ball just reaches him in the box and he scores. But he does have to improve in some details, movements, getting into the box and positioning himself inside the box.
What is your overall ambition with this team?
JB: Just to find my game, be a good teammate and help Orlando City grow.