CARSON, Calif. – Bruce Arena sat down with Juninho as the LA Galaxy began preparations for this season and told the midfielder he expected a lot more offensively, and that the fifth-year MLS veteran needed to produce a lot more than his one goal and four assists from 2013.
The longest-serving of LA's Brazilians has responded to that request with some of his best soccer since coming to America. Goals? Perhaps none of those, but the Galaxy brass is just fine with that.
Juninho, 25, has been exceptional in the holding role within the Galaxy's new midfield diamond, setting the tone defensively while making a mighty impact on the team's suddenly-sterling passing game.
“Day in and day out, I think he's been our most consistent guy at the highest level,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said as the Galaxy prepared for Saturday's Western Conference clash at Colorado (9 pm ET, MLS Live). “I think in the system we've now employed, he's taken that upon himself, and it's very clear in his mind what his role is.
“Sometimes when you play more of a square pairing, it can be a little bit tricky in terms of who's deeper and who's forward and picking your spots. Here, it's a lot more clear for him. He's defensively been excellent, not only winning balls but blocking passing lanes, being in good spots, picking up second balls, just very tuned in, and his fitness, his form, his confidence is all at a high level right now.”
Juninho, who had served as an able deputy to David Beckham in the Galaxy's midfield – holding down the middle to give the Englishman freedom to roam – struggled last year when paired in the middle with his countryman Marcelo Sarvas.
Juninho's ability to surge forward and his deadly shot from distance added up to 13 goals with eight assists in his first three MLS campaigns – 17 goals and 11 assists in all competitive first-team games – but he wasn't the same player in 2013.
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“I was expecting more going forward more this year, score a lot of goals, but you never know,” Juninho said. “The coach has a different mentality in the beginning of the season, he trains the team, and the team did so well so far.”
Arena says giving Juninho fewer attacking responsibilities actually aids the attack.
“He's on the ball a little bit more the way we're playing now, because he's one of our better players,” said Arena. “He's a good possession player.”
Juninho is fitter now than he was at any point last season – he was in camp when preseason opened, different from his earlier campaigns – and that's been pivotal to his success and that of the players around him.
The position isn't new to Juninho. He's played all over midfield but was primarily in a holding role while in São Paulo FC's system before joining LA, initially on loan, in 2010.
“Midfield is midfield,” he said. “It doesn't matter if you go forward [or] have to hold, you have to understand the game.”