Michelle Kaufman

As season opens, Kaká says perceptions of MLS have changed around world

Brazilian professional soccer player Kaka, right, shows his shooting form while talking with Orlando Magic Chairman Dan DeVos before an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015
Brazilian professional soccer player Kaka, right, shows his shooting form while talking with Orlando Magic Chairman Dan DeVos before an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 AP

One of the first things Brazilian star Kaká did when he was approached about joining Major League Soccer’s Orlando City two years ago was reach out to David Beckham.

Kaká and Beckham were teammates with AC Milan in 2009, and Kaká was curious how Beckham made the transition from Europe’s top leagues to MLS. Beckham offered encouraging words, and Kaká decided to make the switch.

He says he hasn’t regretted it for a minute. The 2016 MLS season gets under way Sunday, and Kaká was in Miami last week offering his thoughts on the league, Beckham’s bid for a Miami team and his place on the Brazilian national team.

Kaká, 33, said he came to America because he wanted to be a pioneer in the U.S. league and help change perceptions of U.S. soccer around the world. He is proud to tell anyone who cares to listen that Orlando City drew an average crowd of 32,000 last season, and that the MLS attendance average (21,500) ranks seventh among world pro soccer leagues, ahead of France, Netherlands, Argentina and yes, even Brazil.

“When I got here, my goal was to change that mentality about the American league,” he said. “People always said MLS was either for making money or just to retire. But when I got here, I said, ‘I want to help develop the league and change opinions because I believe some day this will be one of the best leagues in the world, and I want to be part of that evolution.’ ”

He admits he worried about how the Brazilian Federation would view the move and whether it would reduce his value in their eyes.

“I had one more year with Milan. I could have stayed there, but decided to come here, and I can say it’s turned out very well,” Kaká said. “I was a little concerned about whether the Brazilian national coaches would perceive me as player going to the U.S. to retire, or someone who can continue with the national team.

“The last six matches I played with them, I showed I am still playing at a high level for one of the best teams in the world and everyone who comes here to play should have the same opportunity.”

Kaká said the influx of big names in MLS is changing attitudes in Europe and South America. Among the well-known players in the league: Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Giovanni dos Santos and 2015 MVP Sebastian Giovinco.

“All those big names give the league credibility, but the most important thing that must happen for MLS to grow is for the domestic talent to develop,” he said. He applauded the league’s addition of youth academies and other feeder leagues to identify young talent.

He is looking forward to the day there is a rivalry between Orlando City and Beckham’s proposed Miami team.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Kaká said. “A city like Miami with an MLS team would be great, and for us in Orlando, a natural geographic rival. After 10 or 15 years, both teams will have history, and that will create derbies which will be very exciting for fans all over Florida. Having Beckham as the president of the Miami team will give it instant credibility and I’m sure he will get good players.”

One thing Kaká said he likes about MLS is the parity.

“Here it’s exciting because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “In the Spanish and Italian leagues, the probability of the top team beating the last place team is 90 percent. Here, that isn’t the case. There are many surprises.”

As the 2016 season gets started, here are some story lines to watch:

▪ The Portland Timbers try to defend their MLS Cup title. The league takes a two-week break in June for the Copa America Centennial tournament, being played on U.S. soil for the first time. How will Seattle Sounders rookie Jordan Morris, a hometown hero, adapt to the pro game after starring at Stanford?

▪ Will U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard leave Everton and join the Colorado Rapids in the summer? ESPN is reporting that he might. How will Giovinco top last year’s season (22 goals, 16 assists), and can he, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore lead Toronto to a title? Can Drogba, playing his first full MLS season, win the championship with Montreal?

▪ And, of course, the $300 million question: Will Beckham’s group work out its stadium and financial issues and get that project rolling?

▪ U.S.-Germany women in Boca Raton: The U.S. Women’s World Cup championship team will play Germany at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in a doubleheader that also features France against England (5 p.m.). The matches are part of a new four-team tournament called the SheBelieves Cup. Tickets are on sale through ussoccer.com, by phone at 1-800-745-3000 and at Ticketmaster locations.

Who’s leading

EPL: Leicester City (57), Tottenham (54), Arsenal (51), Manchester City and Manchester United (47).

La Liga: Barcelona (69), Atletico Madrid (61), Real Madrid (57), Villarreal (53), Sevilla (44).

Serie A: Juventus (61), Napoli (58), Fiorentina and Roma (53), Inter Milan (48).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (62), Dortmund (57), Hertha Berlin (42), Monchengladbach and Mainz (39).

Ligue 1: PSG (73), Monaco (51), Caen (43), Olympique Lyonnais (42), Nice (41).

On the tube

Sunday: Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool (8:25 a.m., NBCSN), West Brom vs. Manchester United (10:55 a.m., NBCSN), Portland vs. Columbus (4:30 p.m., ESPN), L.A. vs. D.C. (10 p.m., Univision).

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