BRADENTON, Fla. – Mention Juninho Pernambucano to any member of the New York Red Bulls and chances are they will crack a smile. Whether it's because they are picturing his impressive bending free kicks or selfishly thinking of how his passes might benefit them this upcoming season, Juninho is a welcome addition to the club.
And even though knocks have prevented the veteran midfielder from displaying all his wares in preseason, he's still had the opportunity to show off a few samples that have his teammates raring for more.
“It was unbelievable,” Red Bulls forward Fabián Espíndola told MLSsoccer.com after seeing the World Cup veteran curl a trademark free kick into the net. “He just hits it different. He’s a magician. He hits it and even when it looks like it’s going out it can dip in.”
“Fantastic,” center back Markus Holgersson told MLSsoccer.com before jokingly talking about his goalscoring total raising in 2013. “I should have five, six, seven this year.”
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Even head coach Mike Petke joined in on the fun by sharing a tongue-in-cheek comment from one of his charges.
“Someone made a funny joke that our gameplan has just changed dramatically to taking dives around the 18-yard box just so he can step up,” the newly appointed coach recalled.
The excitement over the prodigious skill set the former Brazil international showed in preseason is one thing, though. Living up to expectations in the high-pressure environment that surrounds the Red Bulls is another task entirely.
Having joined New York in December, the 38-year-old Juninho heads into his first MLS season needing not only to adjust to a new league, but also to guide the star-studded and potent Red Bulls in exorcising their postseason demons with his combination of skill and guile.
“We lacked that creative No. 10 that can send balls through and he fits that bill,” Petke told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s not like we’re rolling out and putting him on the field and magic is going to happen. There is going to be a getting-used-to phase in MLS and there is going to be bumps, but the system we’re going to play, we see him as fitting the bill.
And though there is no doubting Juninho's talent, questions remain about his durability in a league that is known for being physical. The Red Bulls have had their share of older injury-prone players in the past, and Juninho is not necessarily off to a flying start in preseason after being limited during the first couple of weeks of New York’s most recent camp due to what the club is calling "calf tightness."
“We’re taking it very slow with him,” said Petke. “There’s no need to rush him, he has all the experience of however many preseasons under his belt, he’s in phenomenal fitness shape and there’s no need to rush him along right now.“
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at Franco8813@gmail.com.