24 Under 24: Juninho a perfect fit for LA, maybe forever
CARSON, Calif. – Celebrity has its perks, which is why Juninho's masterful strike against Vancouver earlier this month was bested by David Beckham's free kick from the same match for MLS AT&T Goal of the Week honors. Beckham knew which was superior; he called Juninho's “incredible.”
The 23-year-old Brazilian midfielder has a knack for such things, and savvy observers know he was as responsible as the big names who got most of the credit for the LA Galaxy's dominant run throughout 2011. "Juni" is LA's complement, meant to deduct what's needed and provide it, to support the big names, and if that's not a star's job description, he's working to make it so.
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The Galaxy's reemergence this summer has relied on superb play from several players, perhaps none more so than Juninho. He set the foundation in midfield as LA caught fire in June and he has stepped up as finisher in recent weeks, with six goals in his last five games, a couple of them spectacular, a couple of them game-winners.
How good has he been?
“A different planet,” says Mike Magee.
“He's in a good rhythm,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan says. “His confidence is very high, which is important for Juninho, because he does get a little emotional, and when things aren't going so good, it can tip the other way. Right now it's tipping in the favor of playing with a lot of confidence, and he's a great link in the midfield when you have guys alongside him like David who need an important player next to them.”
Juninho's relationship with Beckham is integral to the Galaxy's game. Beckham has the freedom to go where he chooses, and Juninho is the safety net, reacting constantly to the English star's movements to keep LA's shape intact.
“Juninho is a perfect counterpart to David ...,” Magee says. “What David is great at is serving balls and getting on the ball. We want him to get wide and find spaces where he can create goals, which is what he's maybe best in the world at. Juninho just does an amazing job of allowing him to do that, and we seem to never get exposed from it.”
Says Sarachan about Juninho: “He's a team guy. If he has to do what I call 'dirty running,' running that maybe others wouldn't do, he's willing to do that. If we're asking him to sit a little deeper, he'll do it. If we're asking him now to pick his spots to get forward, he'll do that. We've even at times had to tilt stuff, so that he's tilted a little bit to the side – he's willing to do anything to help. And he's aware of who he's playing next to, whether it's Marcelo [Sarvas], whether it's David Beckham. He knows his responsibilities.”
WATCH: Juninho's stunner vs. Vancouver
Juninho acknowledges he has a gift for it.
“Every player is different, and every player has something that specifically makes them special,” he said. “And what I have is definitely special, and it definitely works for this team.”
What, exactly, is special about him?
“Besides the obvious, that he scores from pretty much anywhere he shoots?” Magee says. “He's a guy that literally we've had games where he's been plugged in the middle and our shape's been terrible, and he seems to find a way to do it on his own. And he keeps the ball. He never complains. No matter what, you know he's going to be right there. You know he's a guy you can play with, you know he's a guy who's going to cover you when you go forward.”
“He covers all over the place,” left back Todd Dunivant says. “He's a good two-way player. He's good at getting forward, obviously score goals, good passer, but he breaks up a lot of plays and does a lot of the dirty work that needs to be done in here.”
“He's a smart player,” says Marcelo Sarvas, his countryman. “He doesn't try to do too much. He plays simple, most time one-touch. He does the easiest thing, and he does it well.”
Says Sarachan: “I wouldn't call him a classic No. 10, but he has the ability to create attacking moments.”
His goals are becoming legend. He's scored 16 in 101 games (96 starts) in all competitions, since arriving in 2010 on loan from São Paulo. He netted five from outside the box last year, including the goal that carried the Galaxy through the CONCACAF Champions League's toughest first-round group.
Rather than sign with the Galaxy following the season, he re-upped with São Paulo, inking a three-year contract with the club he's represented since he was 14. He didn't get much of a chance during preseason with the Brazilian power and returned to LA on loan in early February.
“We kind of hit the jackpot,” Dunivant says.
But Juninho wasn't fit, had packed on too many pounds on his 5-foot-7 frame and was reeling after his “dream” at São Paulo was denied. He looked out of sorts, much like everybody else on the team. Things tipped the other way.
“It took him time,” head coach Bruce Arena says. “Some players it takes a little bit more time than others. He really dedicated himself to being fit and getting better, and he's been terrific. ... Over the last couple of months, he's been excellent.”
So have the Galaxy, no coincidence. They'd love to know Juninho will stick around another year, maybe longer. But São Paulo is the aim, right?
“A lot of things change. I don't know,” Juninho said. “They could propose something different. It could be a different coach. Maybe I opt to stay here the rest of my career.”
Scott French covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com.