Kaká may be sidelined for the time being for Orlando City SC, but his influence is still felt in the lineup, in the form of fellow midfielder Antonio Nocerino.
The Italian initially arrived for the start of the 2016 season from AC Milan, where he was a teammate of the Brazilian, but it proved a struggle for much of last year, with the Lions enduring a difficult start to the campaign and then suffering a coaching change at the mid-point.
It meant a stop-start introduction to MLS for Nocerino, but the 31-year-old eventually started in all but two of the final 11 games last term, and he will be one of the first names on head coach Jason Kreis’ team-sheet against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday.
His holding role in the Orlando midfield has become pivotal to the team’s newfound defensive solidity, while his ability to get from box-to-box has also been on display. It’s all a far cry from his early days in the league, and he is quick to acknowledge the debt he owes to Kaká (known to teammates and friends by his given name, Ricky) both on and off the field.
“Having Ricky is very important for me, outside and inside [the team],” Nocerino explained to MLSsoccer.com. “Outside, he has helped me with English, with my life here, and with the guys [who speak] Spanish. Then inside, because it is simple. You pass the ball to Ricky and the ball stays with him.
“Ricky is my friend, my best friend. For me, he has been a big help from the start. His family is a friend and Ricky is my brother. I have a very good rapporto, a personal relationship. I am very happy staying with him, he is such a good guy and he is the best, pure and simple.”
The other factor that has played into the new-look Nocerino of 2017 is consistency. He has had a full year to get to grips with the different demands of soccer in America, and, instead of speaking through an interpreter, he now has a good command of English and only occasionally looks for the right word in Italian.
“I speak better English now, and I am happy [with my communication],” he confirmed. “This is good because the coach is able to ask me, and I can ask the coach, because it is important to have that relationship. I work for the team, for the coach. I help everyone. Being able to talk to everyone is important. The first player in the team is always the group.”
That greater individual understanding has led to a more assertive player on the field, a more vocal midfielder who closely aligns with Kreis’ demands to be a leader.
“Personally for me, it is a difference in understanding the guys in the team, and the guys understanding me,” Nocerino explained. “This is important for me, and for MLS it is important, because it is even better than last year, because it is a new player and the coach change for me is now working better [for me] because he is a tactical worker.
“Last year it was about confidence. You may play one game, and then 10 minutes, then two games here. If you have confidence, you play. The soccer is the same, it is not extra-terrestrial. For me, every detail comes down to one word, confidence.”
While Nocerino credits a consistent run in the team for helping him become an essential cog in Kreis’ new-look 4-4-2 system, he still regrets that he didn’t hit his stride quickly enough in his debut season to help the Lions over their playoff hump.
“I am sorry, because last year I didn’t have the opportunity to help the team and we missed the playoffs by one point,” he admitted. “It was a big disappointment. But last year is last year, and this year I am very happy.”
He has already had to prove adaptable at the start of the 2017 campaign. A full preseason’s work alongside Will Johnson was threatened by a rash of injuries that forced Johnson into the right back position, but Nocerino proved equally confident with Servando Carrasco as his midfield partner, and he has also been working with Cristian Higuita in training.
Ultimately it all comes down to feeling secure with the team’s tactical demands.
“I like the style of play, it is more compact, it works better [for my style], and for me, tactically, it is fundamentally better,” he said. “It is a good style and Jason is a very good coach, because this style is something I know. He keeps things simple, and the simple thing is to win. But he is a good guy to work for and I am very happy to have him in Orlando.
“And it is the same as I spoke before – if you have the confidence, the guys look to you for help. This is so important because I play for the guys, for the coach, for the Orlando club, and now, it looks and feels different for me. It is a new life and I am very happy on the pitch and off the pitch.”