The Brazilian soccer star known as Kaká stares down at the ball, seconds from the biggest kick in the newest chapter of his storied career. Wealthy and well-known, his place in the sport is well established, his number on the backs of fans around the world. Kaká doesn't need this goal. But his new team does. Orlando City is losing its first game in Major League Soccer 1-0 with less than a minute on the clock. A wall of defenders waits 10 yards in front of him. The goalie squats low, hands stretched wide. For every reason, Kaká is the guy you want with the ball in this moment. But he would not be here without help from a teammate, a breezy 24-year-old named Kevin Molino.
A world apart
Molino and Kaká (Kuh-KAH) are partners on the field. As midfielders, the job of each is to control the game and set up opportunities for the other to score.
Their lives away from the field couldn't be more different.
There is no Molino No. 18 jersey to buy, no international acclaim.
Kaká, 32, speaks four languages, has played on three World Cup teams and for elite European clubs, and is the second-most-followed athlete on Twitter with 22.3 million followers, more than LeBron James.
Molino spent last year with Orlando City in the third division of American soccer, playing in front of 3,500 fans on some nights.
Kaká this year will make $7.2 million, more than any player in MLS, and more than the payrolls of several teams.
Molino will make $111,400.
A few hours before Orlando City's debut March 8, the fans at the Citrus Bowl camp next to their vehicles, lobbing bean bags at purple cornhole sets and drinking beer.
The rowdiest among them charge toward the stadium 90 minutes early, hoisting giant flags, banging on quad drums and releasing canisters of purple smoke — purple is the team's primary color — into the air.
Kaká's No. 10 appears on the backs of more fans than any other player by far. In a survey of a half-dozen, not one can name another Orlando City player.
Liza Escoffery, 34, of Orlando can — Molino. Like Molino, she grew up in Trinidad and Tobago — where, as in the rest of the world, soccer is called football — and she has followed his career through the country's national teams.
"I would say he's one of our heroes in the country," she said later.
Escoffery could not find Molino's jersey online. So she waves a small Trinidad and Tobago flag — a dash of red and black in a purple sea.
Luring a team, a star
The story of how Kaká came to Orlando starts with a British man's big risk. Phil Rawlins announced in 2010 he was moving his minor-league team from Texas to Orlando, where he said it stood a better chance at joining Major League Soccer.
MLS was looking for a new franchise, and Rawlins reasoned that soccer in Orlando — with its younger population, international tourism and youth soccer following — would work after MLS teams in Tampa and Miami had folded nearly a decade before.
Rawlins needed to prove Orlando had a viable fan base over the club's four seasons in minor-league USL Pro, and two championships helped. He needed buy-in from city and regional leaders, who ultimately pledged taxpayer money toward an $110 million, 20,000-seat soccer stadium downtown.
Then, MLS franchise rights in hand, Rawlins and team majority owner and chairman Flávio Augusto da Silva, a Brazilian entrepreneur, needed a star.
They got Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite. To the world, Kaká.
When Rawlins and Augusto da Silva signed Kaká last summer to a three-year deal, Orlando City fans rushed him at the airport with songs, drums and flags. He has been Orlando's favorite four-letter word since.
"From the moment that I decided to invest in the club, the first person that we talked to was Kaká," Augusto da Silva said. "He's a very visionary guy because he would be able to play in any club in the world, but he accepted the challenge to come here and help build this sport in this country."
A slow start
Orlando City spends the first 30 minutes of its inaugural match feeling out fellow MLS newcomer New York City Football Club.
Then, a flash of brilliance. Kaká kicks the ball up to Molino and tears across the field. Molino nudges the ball to English teammate Lewis Neal, who passes it back, drawing in defenders.
Molino finds Kaká with a quick lateral pass. Kaká does not hesitate to kick the ball toward the top of the net. The crowd of more than 62,000 thinks the zinger is going in, but the New York goalie leaps and punches it away.
'The perfect man'
A few weeks earlier, 300 fans packed the ballroom of an Altamonte Springs Hilton for a faux tailgate with Orlando City, many hoping to meet its star.
Christian Ramirez, 25, came to see Kaká — from Texas.
Ramirez took three days off from her sixth-grade teaching job, packed up her Nissan Versa and hit the road with her mom and sister for 22 hours.
"He goes to church. He takes care of his family," Ramirez said of Kaká. "He is the perfect man to me."
The rest of the team mingled with fans for about a half-hour before Kaká came in wearing a purple and black Adidas warmup suit. He smiled for selfies and signed shirts and scarves. He even recorded a video message for a woman's friend.
It would have been easy to miss Molino facing a wall in the background, playing a soccer game on a PlayStation 4 with a boy.
Molino's teammates call him a goofball, and his outfits are flashy. For media day a couple of weeks later, Molino wore a trilby hat, shorts, canvas sneakers, a blingy Michael Kors watch and a gold rosary.
His voice is so soft you'll miss it unless you are uncomfortably close. It's not that he's shy. He's laid-back, a trait he attributes to his island upbringing. His no-worries attitude also makes him late for team events, a no-no that can result in a fine from coach Adrian Heath.
Heath sees promise in Molino, calling him last fall "one of the most talented footballers in America, period."
This season is huge. If Molino is as much of a threat in MLS as he was with Orlando while it was in the USL Pro league, the payoff could be literal.
"If he comes in and scores 20 goals in his first season, I can promise you that he will make more money," said Taylor Twellman, a former MLS forward and current ESPN analyst.
Second half, so close
Orlando City and New York enter the second half still tied 0-0.
A pass from Orlando City's Brek Shea, a bleached-blond winger who plays for the U.S. national team, pinballs around the top of the penalty box, right onto Molino's preferred right foot. Molino's shot skids by three defenders but not by the fingertips of New York's goalkeeper, who lays out and pushes the ball away from net.
Molino throws his arm and shakes his head.
The top 1 percent
The inequity in salaries between Molino and Kaká is the rule, not the exception, in MLS.
Kaká's annual wage of $7.2 million is more than what all but four of the league's then-19 teams spent on their entire roster last season, according to available salary information. Overall, 562 players made $121.7 million, more than $49 million of which was divided among just 14 stars.
It is by design. Unlike Major League Baseball, for example, where owners fight to sign the latest coveted free agent, driving up players' salaries in the process, MLS contracts are controlled by the league.
In MLS, players sign contracts with the league, which assigns the players to teams (there are 20 teams this year). Complicated rules affect who goes where and how much salary a player receives. One player, for example, ended up moving from Europe to New England last year based on a blind draw.
For Kaká, these intricacies are irrelevant. As an overseas star, he will be paid above the league's soft salary cap either way.
For players such as Molino, it's another story. Their value isn't determined by how good they are in America, but how they stack up on the international market. The league's median salary in 2014 was $80,000, or $92,000 in guaranteed compensation.
Texas State University professor Todd Jewell studies the economics of MLS, including salary distribution.
There is no way a player like Molino "is ever going to make $7 million in Major League Soccer," he said. "The only thing they can do is put themselves in a showcase and go to a league that pays more."
Molino isn't ready for that yet. Orlando helped him get permanent resident status in the United States and his first taste of American professional soccer.
"I think it's a good decision I made to stay here," Molino said. "Everybody knows me at the club, and I can build my resume."
The season opener also is important to MLS's other expansion franchise, New York City FC, and its stars.
New York signed David Villa from Spain's top league for around $6 million a year and U.S. national team member Mix Diskerud.
In the 76th minute, Villa passes to Diskerud, who takes a split-second shot that curves past three defenders and the fingertips of Orlando City goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
Diskerud races with his teammates to the corner of the field to celebrate with traveling fans. The rest of the stadium quiets.
1-0 New York.
Who is Kevin Molino?
Molino is often asked what it's like to play with Kaká. He ticks off his favorite Kaká moment: the time Kaká scored with Italy's AC Milan against England's Manchester United in the 2007 European Champions League semifinal. Kaká tapped the ball with his head between two defenders who collided, and Kaká chased the ball and scored.
Kaká isn't usually asked about playing with Molino.
"My connection with Kevin is getting better; it's improving every day," Kaká said. "He's a very good player. He's smart. He can do a lot of things on the field. So it will be nice to play with Kevin, and I think we can do a lot of things together."
Molino talked about his family, soccer and Kaká after the preseason dedication of a futsal court in the low-income Orlando neighborhood Parramore. (Futsal is a shorter-field version of soccer played on a hard surface, such as a street or a converted basketball court.)
Molino was running late to the ceremony with Mayor Buddy Dyer, team leaders and about 40 African-American kids lined up in two rows facing reporters. He ran straight for the back, and at 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 155 pounds, he blended in with the tallest kids.
Together, they squinted in the morning sun during the speeches and kicked around balls for the cameras.
A few years ago, two of Molino's older brothers were killed in separate but similar shootings in Trinidad. They died in their 30s. Molino said he helps support his family financially. He said he brings "bread to the house and stuff like that" but doesn't go into much detail.
Molino used to have roommates in Orlando, but now he lives alone so his young son, Kevin Jr., and girlfriend, who live in Trinidad, can visit. He returns home to play for the national team, for which his older brother Dwane James also plays.
Home is filled with "tough crime and negativity," Molino said. But it was there he found his interest in sports.
"At the end of the day I always know what I wanted," he said. "I always knew I wanted to be a professional football player."
With seven minutes left in the 90-minute match, Orlando City's chances of capping the historic day in victory are looking bleak.
Orlando City's Aurélien Collin, a Frenchman who has played in the United States since 2011, sprints after a loose ball, and his cleats collide with David Villa's legs, an egregiously hard tackle. Collin gets a red card, which means he has to leave the game and cannot be replaced. The crowd boos.
Orlando City, down one goal, is down one man, too.
'Work to do'
The topic of player pay dominated labor negotiations running up to the MLS season, nearly resulting in a players strike. Even the consistently polite Kaká seemed turned off when asked at media day if he thought his teammates are paid fairly.
"I have to say, sorry, I understand that this is the issue in this moment. For me, everything is new now. And the league works different than wherever I've played," he said. "I don't have too much information to say something more solid about this."
Ultimately, the union and league reached an agreement two days before the season's first game. Final negotiations are not over or public, but salaries will go up next season and some players will have more control over their pay, players union executive director Bob Foose said.
"We think we've made progress on that front, but we still certainly acknowledge that we have more work to do," Foose said.
Still, basic facts of economics — and human nature — remain a hurdle. Todd Jewell, the researcher from Texas State, has studied the "tournament effect" in sports, finding that differences in salaries can drive people to work harder. Everyone wants to be in a position where the highest salary is possible with hard work.
MLS's approach has the opposite effect. Top-tier salaries are unreachable for most players. Jewell's research found that uneven salary distribution can negatively affect an MLS team's winning percentage as players lose the incentive to work harder.
On the field, Molino and Kaká look like they're on the same level. Same purple jersey, same pulled-up socks. And in the last minute of their first MLS regular-season game, they have the same mission: Find a goal.
Orlando City players are fighting with more intensity, down to 10 players as they near the end of regulation and enter extra time.
Molino drives the ball toward the goal, dribbling past one defender. A second defender collides with him, drawing a foul. The moment is washed over in the highlights, but it is key. The penalty sets up a free kick, a situation in which a player gets to take a shot at the net as teammates and defenders stand in a line in front of the goal and its keeper.
Of course, the person taking that kick is Kaká.
His shot isn't pretty. It heads right, but the ball ricochets off the leg of a New York City defender. It throws off the goalie.
The ball bounces into the left corner of the net.
Thousands of fans release pent-up madness. Purple streamers and confetti shoot into the air and drift onto the field as the clock stops ticking and the referee blows the final whistle.
The game ends in a tie. The result isn't typically satisfying to most Americans, but on this day, it works.
"Everything that happened tonight was incredible for everybody. We are building something very special," Kaká tells reporters after. "When I saw the ball go inside the goal, it was amazing. I really wanted to score the first goal for this team."
As Kaká speaks, his teammates change in the locker room. Molino is happy the foul he drew set up Kaká's tying kick. But he is disappointed about his near miss, the one after halftime. "I wanted it very bad," he says.
Like Kaká, he is paid to score goals.