CARSON, Calif. – Club Tijuana didn't require Juninho's services for Tuesday night's friendly against the LA Galaxy, so the Brazilian midfielder gathered his family and brought them the 130 miles north to StubHub Center, his old stomping grounds.
That's how much it meant to him to be present when his former club took on his new team in a meaningless match designed to prod LA along in its preseason work and provide a nice workout for Tijuana's reserve Copa MX side.
“You know, I drove all the way up here to watch the game,” Juninho said following the 0-0 draw played in front of 14,543 fans. “It was a big opportunity for myself to be in front of my fans – you know, my ex-fans – and for a great experience.”
Juninho, who spent six seasons with the Galaxy before moving to Tijuana during the offseason, was introduced before the game to a warm response, signed autographs and posed for photos. He called it “a special night.”
“To watch the game [from the stands] was not easy,” he said. “I wish I was on the field and playing with my teammates. It was a little weird, but I was glad to be back.”
Juninho was transferred to the Liga MX club in mid-December, an unexpected departure that was, club president Chris Klein said last month, “really an opportunity for him and an opportunity for us that opened up a tremendous amount of flexibility [under MLS's salary cap]. He was never on our list of players that we wanted to move or a player that we wanted to get rid of. It all came down very quickly.”
Juninho needed a little time to find his footing. His paperwork wasn't fully in hand before the Xolos' league opener, a 1-1 draw against Pachuca (and former Galaxy teammate Omar Gonzalez) on Jan. 8 at Estadio Caliente, but he's quickly stepped into a vital role under head coach Miguel Herrera.
He's played the last four Liga MX matches for Tijuana, starting the last two – draws on Jan. 29 at Veracruz and Friday at home against Cruz Azul – and scoring his first goal for the club in his first start.
“So far, so good,” Juninho reported. “I've been learning a lot over there. Different league, different teammates and a different coach. I have to adapt myself to their style, and I'm doing that.”
He said “they have a different way to think [about] the game” in Mexico, and that he needs more time to become fully literate in the Xolos' way of playing.
“Mexico, they're more tactical, and they like to pass more and involve more the game in the way they play,” he added. “I'm learning that, too, and I hope I can have experience soon.”
Leaving the Galaxy for Tijuana was “not a simple decision” for Juninho, who was offered a much richer contract by Xolos and was thinking about his and his family's future in making the move across the border.
“I [made the decision] with my family,” he said. “At the moment, I think I needed a fresh challenge for myself. I'm 27 years old. I want to continue to grow as a player. That's why I moved to Mexico.”