Nani embracing new challenges and different spotlight as part of Orlando City culture shift

The Portuguese winger has never been “the guy”, but he’s the player charged with kickstarting a club that has never truly gotten going

Nani has always lingered in an area just outside of the massive spotlight that seems to follow him. At Manchester United, he was a piece of a much larger dynasty, often overshadowed by his superstar teammates and their record-breaking achievements. With Portugal, he was always a sidekick to Cristiano Ronaldo, a player that does tend to command a bit of attention wherever he goes. He never looked at it that way, but it’s natural given the names he’s played with.

Nani is, in fact, a world-renowned star and there is a certain spotlight that does come with that. Wherever he goes, remnants of his past successes are easy to spot. He’s often seen signing Sporting CP or Manchester United jerseys or posing for pictures with fans of his former clubs. He’s frequently asked what he thinks of Man Utd’s current plight and what the club needs to do to match his glory days at Old Trafford. “What was sweeter, Nani: winning the Champions League or Euros?” one reporter asks him at a recent MLS media day. He may not have been the player credited with delivering those sorts of achievements, but he’s certainly known for the part he played in securing them.

Playing in MLS, though, presents a different kind of spotlight. In Europe, players are asked to do their best on the field and do right by their club and its history. But in the U.S., you’re equally player, leader and spokesperson for teams and a league still trying to find their places on the global stage.

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Those roles are now something Nani has to live with as the leader and captain of Orlando City. When the All-Star game came to Orlando last season, it was the Portuguese star that represented his club and league in much of the marketing. When Orlando needed a representative for the league’s media week or an event featuring Kobe Bryant, they sent Nani. And with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic now out of the league, Nani is perhaps the most recognizable face MLS has to offer.

Is he comfortable with it? Kind of. Nani insists that his current role doesn’t change his approach or his mindset. He’s always been a leader in his own way, only now that spotlight is a bit more laser-focused his way.

“I just focus on my club,” Nani told reporters ahead of his second MLS season. “Obviously, there is much more behind all of this, but I just focus on one thing in my career. I just focus on Orlando, winning games, doing the best for my team, my teammates. Everything around [that] , I don’t care, with all due respect, because I’m a football player. I need to perform and play just football. The other things, I leave for experts to talk about.

“I just focus on my team, play well and try to help make the team the best in the league and that’s it.”

When Nani arrived in MLS last February, it began a period of change for both player and team. He came on the heels of a return to boyhood club Sporting CP, although that return was much shorter than many expected. After seven seasons of unmatched stability and consistency at Manchester United, Nani arrived at his sixth club in six years last February when he first showed up in Florida.

His new club was Orlando City, a team still looking to develop any positive sign of culture. The club’s initial years, headlined by the signing of Kaka, brought typical off-the-field success and excitement. But on the field, Orlando was, and still is, a club lacking identity. The Lions have not made the playoffs in any of their five MLS seasons and have now had five different men take charge as head coach.

Nani’s signing was supposed to begin a shift toward more success, but it proved a massive task even for him. The Portuguese star arrived just before the season started and, once again, Orlando faltered. Nani played fairly well, leading the team with 12 goals and 10 assists, but Orlando took another step backwards as a team. The Lions finished dead last in the Eastern Conference and with the second-worst record in MLS.

Nani admits that last season was a “difficult” one. He struggled to adapt to the travel, and he is far from the first player to need time to adjust to that particular aspect of MLS. He was also playing in a new league with new teammates for a club that was still quite obviously a ways away from contending.

This season, he says, will be different though, simply because he knows what to expect.

“I would like to be the one who leads this team,” Nani said. “Everyone could say we are not strong anymore, but it’s not about that. It’s about the club and the team and building a strong team, a strong club to perform well compared with any team in MLS face to face. We need to work hard. We need to prepare all of the players, all of the staff, everyone around the club and the facility to prepare to understand the mentality and what we need to do.

He added: “Last season, I arrived in a difficult moment because the team was all ready to start playing. I had to be in the middle of them, focal to the games and the season. That’s complicated. Now, it’s different. I can start from the beginning and that gives me more confidence. For sure, I will be much better.”

And he’ll have to be. This Orlando team has made a number of changes, as familiar faces like Sacha Kljestan, Will Johnson and Cristian Higuita have moved on. In their place, the club has brought on a series of MLS newcomers, like Colombia U-20 Andres Perea, Peru No. 1 Pedro Gallese and Brazilian veteran Junior Urso. They also made a change at manager, with former FC Dallas boss Oscar Pareja stepping into the role to replace James O’Connor.

But this team, this group, will need Nani at his best and pulling the strings if they hope to take that leap forward. Pareja and the club’s new signings will be charged with fostering a new culture, but Nani’s leadership on the field will be vital if that’s to take hold in year one.

Further complicating matters for Orlando is the major change occurring about three and a half hours south. With the introduction of a new rival in David Beckham’s Inter Miami, the Lions are facing the very real possibility of becoming Florida’s second-biggest club before their star-filled southern neighbors have even kicked a ball.

Nani Poster All-Star

That challenge, though, is one Nani is relishing. He’s played in massive derbies before and, aside from a few select matches in MLS, that feeling is difficult to replicate in the U.S. A potential Orlando-Inter Miami rivalry is one that could very well blossom into a marquee event. In Europe, you don’t often see the development of new rivalries, and that makes this experience a new one even for someone as well-travelled as Nani.

“I’m so excited. I hope we can make this game a big game,” he said. “I want our fans to be a piece of our city. I want to see passion in that game, the desire to win. That makes it beautiful. That game, when we play with intensity and show passion, it’s beautiful. When you have a team and a rival, it’s beautiful.”

It’s one of several motivating factors for the 33-year-old heading into the season. He wants to be the player that kickstarts a club. He wants to be the man that kickstarts what could just be the next big rivalry. He wants to continue to play at a high level and win trophies, as he has all through his career.

But his big motivator is simple. At this stage of his career, Nani is having fun, even under a new kind of spotlight. 

“What I can offer the league is my experience, my quality of football, my passion, the way I see football,” Nani said. “Obviously, this league can offer me beautiful stadiums, good atmosphere, great feelings and quality of life. Everything in this country is fantastic. Put it all together and I’ve been very happy.”

He added: “I have this opportunity. I want kids to believe the way I did, sacrifice sometimes because it’s not easy to achieve what we want, but when you believe and when you want something and you try as hard as possible, that’s my feelings. I will continue to think this way until, I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I hope it’s 20 years from now.”

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