ORLANDO, Fla.—Antonio Nocerino has not enjoyed the most promising of European arrivals on the MLS stage, but you don’t need to tell him that. He is painfully aware he has yet to provide much return on Orlando City SC’s investment, but he is convinced he has turned the corner under Jason Kreis.
It has taken 11 appearances in the team’s 21 games, but the 31-year-old Italian turned in a poised and distinguished performance in last Sunday’s 3-1 defeat of New England and, for once, he heard cheers from fans who have been less than complimentary about the defensive midfielder.
Now Nocerino believes he – and the team – are poised for something of a renaissance under Kreis as he seems set for an extended run in the starting XI, and in the position he most covets: playing in the middle rather than pushed out wide to the left.
Against the Revolution, he and Servando Carrasco formed a narrow partnership along the team’s spine, providing close support for the attacking trio of Kaká, Kevin Molino and Brek Shea while also shielding the back four as much as possible. It is a role he relished at AC Milan, and which prompted skipper Kaká to recommend City make a bid for his former teammate.
“I was played in the right position in the last game, which is something I have been looking to do since getting here, so I am very happy about that and I hope people can see that,” he explained, via the team’s translator. “I like playing under a system with two midfielders; I don’t like playing on the flanks. I like to be able to move the ball around, and having two midfielders gives me the ability to do that more.
“And, in this position, I am able to help out teammates at any point if they are in difficulty. Being in the middle of the field gives me the opportunity to bail people out if anything goes wrong. I can always receive the ball and fix anything that is not running smoothly.”
Kreis admitted he did not expect to be putting Nocerino’s name in the starting lineup for his first league game in charge last weekend, but the Italian’s forceful second-half display against Stoke City in midweek and a cerebral approach to training really caught the new coach’s attention.
“In football, unless you are Messi or Ronaldo, you win through your brain, through tactics and the mentality you bring in; it is not just sheer skill,” Nocerino said. “So tactics always prevail and Jason knows MLS well. He was a player in the league, he has coached, so he can bring a first-hand approach to it, and the tactics he is implementing seem to be working pretty well.”
The veteran international arrived in the league with high hopes of adding to the Italian reputation burnished by the likes of New York City FC's Andrea Pirlo and reigning MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco, but has not started more than three games in a row at any stage.
He admits the fans’ low opinion of him – which included a shouting match with one supporter in The Wall after a dismal 0-0 draw with Houston last month – has been a concern, as well as the lack of consistent opportunities.
He is anxious to build a new rapport, both with his team and the fans, but knows he needs to back up last week’s promising outing with another on Sunday at home to Seattle Sounders, and then on the road at Chicago on August 14, which would equal his longest run in the team.
“[Last Sunday] was very important for me,” he confirmed. “It did bother me that I hadn’t been able to prove what I could do in the first couple of months here and I obviously painted a bad picture of myself among fans up until recently.
“But I am going to continually work towards changing my image with the fans and try to gain some continuity in playing week in, week out and build a form that will ultimately be a vital [image] changer.”
Nocerino also believes there is a new, positive attitude about the squad since Kreis took over, although he insists he doesn’t see it as “a new start” personally.
“Essentially it is thinking with one head," Nocerino said. "Rather than 11 separate heads running in different directions, having the one goal between each other and understanding each other.”
The one thing that has instantly endeared Nocerino to the new coaching staff is his inquisitiveness, his desire to understand the system gradually being rolled out by Kreis and the different requirements of it. It is not yet the fabled ‘diamond’ of the coach’s Real Salt Lake days, but it is moving in that direction.
“Yes, I take great interest in this formation,” Nocerino said. “I have never actually played in the diamond formation before but, as a footballer, I am always looking to learn. You never know everything.
“Additionally, I am looking to help the coach with ideas for formations and tactics alongside the experience that Ricky [Kaka], Julio [Baptista] and David Mateos, with our different international backgrounds, can bring. And not only on the field but also off the field, in being a role model for younger players, which is something I have actively been looking to do since getting here.”