WASHINGTON — At 35 years old, Kaka finds himself a decade away from his Ballon d'Or best. With an uptick in age has come the occasional appearance off the bench. Such is life managing minutes.
But there was something amiss when the Brazilian icon was named as a substitute for Orlando City's trip to face D.C. United on Saturday. Two of Kaka's previous appearances as a sub came as he worked his way back from injury. The other two? Those occurred as midweek matches prompted Orlando coach Jason Kreis to rotate his squad.
In choosing to start Giles Barnes in the No. 10 role beneath strikers Cyle Larin and Dom Dwyer, Kreis simply kept Kaka in reserve at RFK Stadium for tactical reasons. No fitness concerns, no schedule congestion.
"I wanted to see those three players play together," Kreis said of Dwyer, Larin and Barnes. "I just really wanted to see if we could go with what I felt was a little fresher legs and a little more athleticism in this game. They're all very active guys, dangerous when they're picking up the ball and feeding off of each other."
That decision panned out, as Orlando snapped an 0-6-2 skid with a 2-1 victory. After Dwyer teed up Larin for the 19th-minute opener, Barnes added a goal of his own nine minutes later. Kaka, meanwhile, came on in the 77th minute to see out the result. In picking up a late yellow card for dissent, he earned a suspension for this weekend's trip to face Atlanta United.
"It keeps their defenders honest, their [defensive midfielder] honest, with Giles making runs behind their defense and getting the ball in front of them," Larin said of the attacking personnel. "I'm able to drop and get the ball too in that 10 position, and I'm being more mobile than just standing up front. I think it helps us, and it keeps defenders honest."
Too much attacking talent is a good problem to have, and in that regard Orlando has put itself in an enviable position going forward — even if the playoffs are likely out of reach this season.
Breaking the bank to acquire Dwyer from Sporting Kansas City gave Orlando two of the league's most consistently lethal strikers. Peru international Yoshimar Yotun and his cannon of a left foot make for an enticing weapon on the flank. The addition of midfielder Dillon Powers from the Colorado Rapids was an underrated move. Offseason acquisition Barnes — an All-Star-caliber player at his best — is finally starting to find a rhythm.
With those pieces in place, it's increasingly difficult to see where Kaka fits in as his current contract winds down. The Dwyer-Larin duo means he's not cracking the lineup as a withdrawn forward, though rumors do continue to link Larin to a European move. Kaka also has logged minutes on the left flank this season, but that's Yotun's preferred post — and the 27-year-old wasn't signed as a designated player this summer to sit on the bench.
Is Kaka mobile enough to be a playmaker in a 4-3-1-2 or 4-4-2 diamond? He hasn't exactly exerted his creative influence this season (compiling a modest four goals and five assists in 20 games), and Barnes brought much-needed vigor to the position Saturday.
Explaining the decision to start the Jamaica international Saturday, Kreis made it clear: Kaka, like everyone else, must compete for his spot.
"The whole week we were trying to make a decision," Kreis said. "That's the way we're going to operate now going forward, that we won't make decisions on lineups until we feel like we have to. The week in training we competed, we laid it out there for the guys and we went with the guys who earned it through the week."
It's perhaps not a coincidence that a hamstring injury reduced Kaka to just 41 minutes of Orlando's 6-1-0 streak to kick off 2017. In fact, Orlando is 1-9-4 this season when Kaka plays at least 45 minutes. When he doesn't? The Lions are 8-3-3.
While Kaka isn't the only variable contributing to that statistic, the gulf is striking. And it's particularly tough to swallow considering Kaka's guaranteed compensation of $7.2 million, per the MLS Players Union, makes him the highest paid player in MLS.
In terms of exposure and awareness, Kaka has done wonders for the Orlando City brand. He's embraced his status as an MLS ambassador as well.
Could he accept a reduced salary and reduced role? Perhaps. But one thing has become clear: Orlando has been built for the post-Kaka age.