Soccer superstars Kaká, David Villa lift MLS, Carolina Challenge Cup to new heights

Orlando City SC midfielder Kaká signs autographs during this week's Carolina Challenge Cup. Mark Thor / Orlando City SC.

They lean as far as they can, the railing barely being able to support the crush of people that separates the West stands and the playing field at Blackbaud Stadium.

More than a hundred rabid soccer fans — young and old — crammed into a space meant for half that number trying to get his attention. Most are wearing Brazilian national team jerseys, others are in Orlando City SC or AC Milan or Real Madrid apparel, but all are united in their reverence of one man.

They hold out posters, jerseys and miniature soccer balls in hopes of getting his signature.

“Kaká! Kaká!” they scream trying to get the attention of the Orlando City SC midfielder.

Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite — better known as Kaká, because when you’re this good you only need one name — smiles and continues to work his way down the railing, signing everything in sight. It takes nearly half an hour, but Kaká signs every poster, every jersey and every ball thrust in front of him with the grace and style of an international movie star, which is essentially what he is to soccer fans in the Lowcountry and across the globe.

It’s exactly the kind of reception that Orlando City team owners Flavio Augusto da Silva, a Brazilian businessman, and Phil Rawlins envisioned when they signed the 2007 FIFA world player of the year for $7.2 million back in June. His deal is the largest in MLS history, surpassing David Beckham’s 2007 contract with Los Angeles by more than $700,000.

Kaká isn’t the only soccer royalty in town this week during the Charleston Battery’s annual Carolina Challenge Cup. New York City FC features striker David Villa, Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer, who has been swarmed by fans before and after matches as well this week.

The Charleston Battery can win the preseason tournament with a victory over New York City FC Saturday night. The match is set to start 7:30 p.m. The night’s first match will pit Orlando City against the Houston Dynamo beginning at 5 p.m.

While maybe not at the peak of their soccer powers, Villa, 33, and Kaká, 32, are still playing at a high level and could have signed with teams in Europe. Throw in New York City FC’s Frank Lampard, who is currently playing for Manchester City in the English Premier League, and the influx of international stars to the MLS has become a steady flow this season and soon could turn into a flood of talent for the expanding North American league.

“I think Beckham kind of started the trend of European players signing with the MLS, but in some ways I think Kaká signing is a bigger deal,” said Orlando assistant coach Mark Watson, who coached and played for the Charleston Battery. “Because of who he is and his wife Victoria, Beckham is probably a bigger deal, because he has that brand name that even non-soccer fans can recognize. But Beckham was at the end of his career. Kaká is still playing at the highest level. He could have played for any number of clubs in the world, but came to the MLS. So, on the field, I think having Kaká, David Villa and Frank Lampard has taken the MLS to another level.”

For most of its existence, the MLS has been considered a second-tier league internationally, far beneath most of Europe’s clubs. It was a league where aging European stars would come to earn big bucks during the twilight of their careers. Kaká, on the other hand, said he has wanted to play in the U.S. for years. Kaká played for Italian powerhouse A.C. Milan for the past two seasons.

“I always said that one day I’d like to play in the United States,” Kaká said. “I have a good relationship with Flavio (Augusto da Silva) and he said if he bought a franchise in America, he’d like for me to come here and play. We spoke a lot about this over the past year and reached an agreement. It’s a dream come true for me to come here and play. This was the right moment for me.”

Villa, who played most recently for Atlético Madrid, said the MLS is building its reputation around the world.

“I see the MLS as an attractive league, an up-and-coming league and one that many top-level players will want to be a part of in the future,” Villa said. “I think this is a very important opportunity for myself and this generation of players to help the league grow. It’s a league that is growing every day and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Kaká agreed.

“I think everyone can see the league is getting better,” he said. “The players that are coming here from all over the world are making it better. I think people can see that this league has a very big future.”

Being in the Lowcountry for the past week has had its advantages for Kaká and Villa. The anonymity they have enjoyed here has been a nice respite. Going out in public in Europe or Brazil would be nearly impossible. Earlier in the week, Villa went on a jog in downtown Charleston and was stopped just one time during his workout. Kaká was able to sit in a local café and drink coffee undisturbed for nearly an hour. Villa and Kaká could never have gotten away with such endeavors in Europe.

“It was nice to be a normal person even for a little while,” Kaká said.