Can Luis Nani fire Orlando City to MLS glory?
Background photo: Steveo89, CC BY-SA 4.0
Luis Nani is a shining example of a player who can make you whoop with glee but also cause deep stress lines and hair loss, often within the same game. He produces moments of pure magic but is also prone to disappearing. His career is a story of great potential that remains largely unfulfilled.
The Portuguese forward played a key role in the national side that won Euro 2016 against the odds. For Manchester United, he scored what remains one of the outstanding solo goals in Premier League history when he cut in from the right against Arsenal in 2010 to chip in from a nearly impossible angle.
But he never threatened to become a world-class player, settling for spending his time in compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow. Then again, who doesn’t?
Deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, he returned to Sporting CP via brief spells in Turkey, Spain and Italy. His descent into irrelevance was compounded for many when he moved across the pond to join Orlando City as a designated player in February. For those not up on Major League Soccer's arcane wage cap, the designated player is the league's method for providing 30-something European stars one last big payday in exchange for their celebrity.
Old, not obsolete
The Florida franchise’s poor start to the season coincided with Nani’s struggles to settle into the team. Deployment as a second striker limited his impact. In his first 354 minutes of MLS experience, he mustered a single assist.
Manager James O’Connor took this on board and moved him to a deeper role, allowing the former Valencia man to play with more freedom and space. The move paid immediate dividends when Colorado Rapids visited the Sunshine State.
The Lions won 4-3 in an exhilarating clash. Nani rewarded his boss’ tactical switch with a headed goal on the half-hour mark, levelling the score after Kei Kamara opened the scoring for the visitors.
“Old, not obsolete,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator once upon a time. Nani proved the statement applied to him in this match. To further emulate Arnie, he would be back just one minute from time to slot home a penalty, securing the three points and finally announcing his arrival stateside.
The Portuguese scored in both matches following that late victory, coming off the bench to fire in a free kick at Real Salt Lake and scoring the only goal of the game as Orlando downed Vancouver last weekend.
Consistency is key
The biggest challenge facing the former Premier League and Champions League winner remains what it has always been. Can he keep his standards high and make a real difference for his team on a weekly basis?
Time is against him. He is in the twilight of his professional career. Unless he takes the Terminator comparison far too literally and enhances his human body with cybernetics, he will not be a fixture in the Lions’ first team for years to come.
He can push his new team to greater heights this season, however. When he plays well, so does the team. If he can continue his current average of a goal every other game, Orlando City can mount a strong challenge for the MLS Cup.
Others must contribute as well. Fellow veteran Sacha Kljestan is always at the heart of City's attack. England-born US international Dom Dwyer has to be clinical in front of goal.
That said, a starring role in a victorious season for his new club would go a long way to convincing doubters of Nani's importance to any side he serves.