In his third season as Orlando City’s captain, designated player Luis Nani hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down.
At 34, the captain is still sending defenders skidding to the grass and netting golazos that echo his highlights at Manchester United.
Nani has played consistently for the Lions since he first touched down in Orlando. The captain recorded 12 goals and 10 assists in 2019, then notched six goals and five assists in last year’s condensed season.
But as he prepares to lead the Lions this year, coach Oscar Pareja says the team is focused on managing the captain’s workload to allow him to perform at his best level.
“I can see Nani fresher now and we will pace him out,” Pareja said. “He’s enjoying the game, he’s scoring goals that are very valuable for us, important goals.”
Nani faced physical challenges before the Lions even played a match this year. The captain was sidelined for three weeks of the preseason with a lower body injury, playing only 45 minutes of one preseason match.
Despite this delayed start, Nani pushed himself back into full-game form, averaging 83 minutes per game in the first three outings of the season.
“It’s a long time not playing,” Nani said. “Getting the rhythm is difficult. There’s still a lot of work in front of me and I need to get in my best shape, but I know just playing the games is going to get you on your best.”
The 2020 season emphasized the importance of providing enough rest for veteran players like Pereyra and Nani. Although the regular season was 11 matches shorter than usual due to the pandemic, those games were smashed into a cramped four-month period.
Between the breathless pace of the MLS is Back tournament and regular three-game weeks, players saw a heightened volume of injuries and exhaustion throughout the season.
Nani faced a similar challenge of exhaustion in his debut season, when he went directly from the Portuguese season to the MLS season without a pause or preseason.
The key to navigating Nani’s daily workload rests on the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Fabian Bazan.
Pareja credits Bazan with helping Nani track his fitness and choose when to push and rest in any given training session. He said the pair have formed a tight bond, allowing them to trust one another as they prepare for the long grind of the regular season.
“Fabian’s job with Nani, with Mauro [Pereyra], with players who have already 20 seasons on their shoulders, 15 seasons for sure ... is sometimes we need to pace them,” Pareja said. “We try to do a better job just do keep players fresher.”
Keeping Nani fresh is about more than just scoring goals. As a winger, Nani helps to lead the high press that’s become a staple for the Lions under Pareja. The coach also expects every player to defend every inch of the field, switching immediately to disruptive defense the moment the Lions lose the ball.
Pareja says the captain is taking joy in these increased expectations of his defensive performance. The coach pointed to a play in the first half of the match against Cincinnati when Nani tracked his assigned full back for 45 yards at full speed, slowing any hopes of a quick transition play.
“That was a great play for me,” Pareja said. “Just to see how he’s enjoying the game and he can help his team defensively, too.”
Nani said he’s still working up to his peak fitness after his preseason injury, but he felt encouraged by the team’s performance in their first three matches.
To improve upon their success in 2020, Nani said the team needs to patiently build through the season to position itself for a strong finish in the postseason.
“There’s no rush,” Nani said. “It’s a long season, and we want to end up playing good, scoring goals. It’s not important now. It’s always good to win, it’s always good to start well, but we know we are doing great. We just need to continue to do what we know and the games will come.”