Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Juninho thriving outside the spotlight
By Jeff Carlisle
Giants center fielder Marvin Benard reacts as right fielder Eric Davis makes a sliding catch to take a hit away from the Padres' Wiki Gonzalez. San Francisco beat San Diego 2-1.
On a team as star-studded as the L.A. Galaxy, it's easy for a player like Juninho to operate in stealth mode. The Brazilian's instructions are often simple; win the ball, then give it to stars like David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan before watching them weave their collective magic. It's a critical role, without question, but one that doesn't generate many headlines.
But lately, the midfielder (on loan from Sao Paulo) has been appearing on the radar of opponents more often, much to their detriment. Juninho has scored six goals in his past six games; his long-range shooting and late runs out of midfield are causing myriad problems for opposition defenses. His contributions have helped the Galaxy go 5-0-1 during that time, a stretch that has seen them surge into second place in the Western Conference. And Juninho is more than happy to strike when opponents least expect it.
"[Beckham, Keane and Donovan], they get all the attention," he said via telephone with the help of a translator. "They are players where it’s one, two touches, and they score a goal. And because [opponents] are focused when the ball goes in to them, they forget. When the ball is pushed back to me they don't push up. That's been great for me; I like that. But it's also great to have teammates that push you to try those types of shots."
Juninho's presence on the Galaxy squad required sacrificing a dream, at least in the short term. The midfielder signed with Sao Paulo when he was 14 years old, and when he returned to Brazil at the conclusion of last season, he signed a new three-year contact in the hope that he would achieve a breakthrough with the first team. But since experienced players such as former Arsenal midfielder Denilson were in front of him, playing opportunities became scarce and Juninho soon asked to be loaned back to the Galaxy.
Yet his return was anything but smooth. The Galaxy were already weeks into their preseason program and it was clear Juninho had some catching up to do in terms of his fitness. This lack of sharpness then bled into the start of the season, a period during which the Galaxy compiled a record of 3-8-2.
"Juninho literally hadn’t done a whole lot since he left us in our tour of Australia, or wherever we were, in December," said Galaxy manager Bruce Arena. "He was just out of shape, a little bit overweight, just not on top of his game. And it took him a little while. Once he got his fitness back, his weight down, good things started to happen."
"I think probably three months ago he got focused, got his concentration right, his dedication right, and he’s been superb since," Arena said. "Ironically, it coincides with our run of success. Those two things have gone together."
Juninho's goal-scoring binge has come at a critical time of the season. The Galaxy have been trying to secure a first-round playoff bye by finishing at least third in the conference, and Beckham has missed four of the past six games with a left ankle sprain. Yet Juninho's ability to combine with fellow Brazilian Marcelo Sarvas has showed off L.A.’s depth and versatility, not to mention Juninho's willingness to adapt.
"Beckham has obviously a lot of responsibility in the attack and he likes to push forward," he said. "So I have to recognize, as a player, that I have to stay back and I have to protect this [midfield] area. When I'm playing with Marcelo [Sarvas] it's different. Marcelo doesn't have the same responsibilities as David, and I have the confidence that when I go forward, Marcelo is going to stay back. It's just different."
Juninho's seven goals this season are more than the combined total from his previous two campaigns. Yet when Beckham returns, it's likely that the Brazilian will revert more to the dedicated holding role that he has occupied since his arrival two seasons ago. That said, teams will still need to be on the lookout for L.A.'s "other" center-mid. Juninho, for his part, expects the spaces to be there.
"Now the team is actually playing good, and that just opens up so many things," he said. "We're more creative, we're passing the ball around. It helps me."