- Jeff Carlisle, Soccer
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It was the kind of news that was met with a nod of the head, if it elicited much reaction at all. New York Red Bulls midfielder Juninho Pernambucano had decided MLS and the Red Bulls aren't for him, and so he's heading back to Brazil with his contract canceled by those always-misleading words, "mutual consent."
"We are very disappointed that Juninho has decided to return to Brazil because he is a great professional and a very talented footballer," Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh said via a news release. "We wish him all of the best and thank him for his valuable contributions during the first half of the 2013 MLS campaign."
It was a relationship that seemed forced from the start and had all the hallmarks of an old boss -- in this case, the Red Bulls' global head of soccer, Gerard Houllier -- giving one of his old players the chance for one last, modest payday. Juninho no doubt was, and in some respects still is, a talented player, one who in his prime performed magical midfield feats for the likes of Lyon and Vasco da Gama. But he also is 38 years old, and his lack of mobility was already known prior to his coming to MLS. In a league in which athleticism remains a massive ingredient to a team's success, the question was always going to be how New York could best accommodate a luxury player such as the former Brazilian international.
And let’s be clear, that's what Juninho was. His lack of range meant others, most notably Dax McCarty, were going to have to cover for him defensively. Meanwhile, his trademark free kicks never quite lived up to their reputation. In fact, arguably his most accurate delivery came back on April 17, when he kicked a ball at Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen from close range and was sent off for his troubles to cap a 1-0 defeat. Add it all up, and his presence in the lineup amounted to a less than optimal tradeoff.
There are numerous reports floating about that Juninho didn't like the way he was being used by manager Mike Petke, namely as one of two central midfielders in a 4-4-2. It's easy to understand where Juninho was coming from, as it's not a system that plays to his strengths. But there's also no doubting the inherent logic of Petke's tactical decisions. He started the year playing 4-3-3, with Juninho, McCarty and Tim Cahill comprising the midfield three, but quickly surmised that the rest of the team's personnel didn't really fit that particular system.
So Petke did what he thought was best for the team and ultimately went to a 4-4-2. And while injuries and international call-ups made the composition of the starting lineup fluid, the emergence of Cahill alongside McCarty quickly became Petke's preferred central pairing thanks to McCarty's tireless running and ball winning as well as Cahill's two-way play, in particular his late runs into the box.
So like most shotgun marriages, this one ended in divorce, but its demise also makes for a better situation for both the team and its coach.