CARSON, Calif. – How swiftly things changed after Juninho departed the LA Galaxy's CONCACAF Champions League clash against Monterrey underscores how great the challenge will be if the Brazilian midfielder is unable to play in next week's semifinal second leg.
Juninho, perhaps the most influential player on the field Wednesday night, did not take part in LA's training session Friday morning at the Home Depot Center, but head coach Bruce Arena wasn't particularly concerned.
“He's doing fine,” Arena said. “We don't expect him to be out for any extended period of time. ... It's Friday. We don't really care [how he's doing] on Friday. We'll start caring more next week.”
Juninho twisted his right ankle and his neck after stepping on an opponent's foot about an hour into the first leg. (The neck injury is what is troubling him, Arena said; his ankle apparently is fine.) He exited in the 61st minute and the Galaxy soon lost command of midfield, which helped feed Monterrey's late comeback for a 2-1 victory.
“With Juninho, his contributions to keeping the ball and keeping it moving is crucial to what we try to do,” Galaxy captain Robbie Keane told MLSsoccer.com. “I think with Juni gone out, it was a little bit difficult. That's no disrespect to anyone that's came in, but he was controlling to game from the start, like he was taking over. It's tough.”
Defender Todd Dunivant said LA would “make do if we have to.”
“Juninho's a big part of our team, and he's our engine,” Dunivant said. “Losing him is certainly a big loss, but we have guys that can capably replace him. Marcelo [Sarvas] can play in that position, and we have plenty of guys who can fill in in that spot as well.”
The Galaxy have depth, but not that kind of depth. Michael Stephens, who came on for Juninho, offers a very different skill set: He's an energetic and versatile midfielder but not a player who alters the game's pace and provides a foundation for extended possession. The only adequate replacement is fellow Brazilian Sarvas, Juninho's partner in the middle. They make a marvelous tandem.
Stephens and second-year midfielder Rafael Garcia, who been on the 18-man game-day roster for every LA game this season, are the likeliest replacements if Juninho can't play in Monterrey.
“It'll be difficult, because whoever's in there is not Juninho and obviously hasn't played there much,” defender A.J. DeLaGarza said. “Juni and Marcelo have been in there 90 percent of the time, I guess. And they've done pretty well together -- Brazilian flavor, I guess. But we have good depth on this team. Whoever steps in can do the job. We're going to need him to step up huge.”