CARSON, Calif. – He doesn’t always generate the headlines but no player has been more essential to the LA Galaxy in recent years than Brazilian midfielder Juninho.
For a player long saddled with the “the most underrated” title, Juninho has stepped out of the shadows of Beckham, Donovan and Keane by becoming become an irreplaceable force in LA’s midfield. Once a soft spoken newcomer from Sao Paulo, Juninho has blossomed into one of the team’ s most vocal leaders over the course of his 200 competitive appearances for the club, even leading Bruce Arena to give him the captain’s armband for a recent match against D.C. United.
But if you ask Juninho, his development as a leader of this Galaxy team began long before Arena handed him the armband.
“Inside of the group, I’m a leader already. If you ask anyone on the team, they’ll say that, but I know that I have to keep stepping up and showing myself,” Juninho told LAGalaxy.com. “I’m one of the most experienced players on the team right now and I’ve been talking to the new players to explain how we play. It’s very important that they know that so we can still keep playing at a high level.”
Juninho’s leadership may be unseen to many but his impact has been immense, particularly, through his habit of scoring highlight-reel goals from distance. None of strikes were bigger than his series-clinching goal in the 2014 Western Conference Championship second leg that lifted LA over Seattle Sounders FC, and into MLS Cup.
As he’s developed into a leader, he’s had to adjust to a Galaxy squad that has changed around him. After playing a majority of the last two years alongside Sarvas, Juninho has suited up alongside three different partners in the midfield this year as Kenney Walker, Baggio Husidic and Mika Vayrynen have split the duties in the center of the park.
Even though all three midfielders bring different traits than Sarvas did a year ago, Juninho has grown comfortable with his new found leadership role, even taking on a new title: “the supervisor.”
“Each midfielder has different characteristics and I have to know that because I’m the hold[ing midfielder]. I have to command the midfield so all of their characteristics have to be in my mind because I have to supervise everything,” said Juninho. “I have to supervise in front of me, I supervise the back by talking to the players on the back line, and I talk to Jaime Penedo because he doesn’t speak English so I’m kind of supervising everyone.
“You have to understand your partner which is difficult,” he added. “With our guys, I don’t have a lot of games with them yet, but I’m looking to develop chemistry with them, and for sure, as the season goes on, we’ll develop that partnership.”
Being the “supervisor” may be difficult when you’re managing experienced players like Vayrynen but the Brazilian’s discipline and steady presence frees up whomever he lines up alongside.
Even the 33-year-old Vayrynen. who is a shade longer in the tooth than his Brazilian counterpart, sees the class and complexity in Juninho’s game.
“I’ve played alongside many players like Juni who like to stay in a holding role and position themselves quite well. When I play alongside him, it gives me freedom to move forward because he will sit and hold his position and allow me to go up,” Vayrynen said. “He gives us freedom and stays there, but I don’t know if he is really supervising me because I’m older than him. But there has to be a coach on the field in the midfield and he certainly does that.”
Juninho’s role is once again expected to change this summer when Steven Gerrard arrives from Liverpool and takes his expected place alongside the Brazilian.
While adapting to multiple partners in the midfield could be overwhelming for some players, the Galaxy are confident that Juninho can handle the responsibility.
“He’s really embraced his role being here now a number of years and now being a leader of the midfield. He’s embraced that no matter who he’s paired with,” Associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “He understands what his role is going to be. Certainly getting adjusted to new faces leads to an adjustment in how you move, but with Juni, it’s pretty clear what his job is.”
Added Arena, “He is at a point in his career where he feels like he’s a leader. He’s been here awhile and he’s taken a responsibility of being more assertive and accepting some of the responsibilities that Marcelo had as well and he’s a perfect fit.”
As Juninho’s influence has grown, teams have begun keying in on the Brazilian as a way to silence the Galaxy. During LA’s defeat to Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Canadian side sought to prevent Juninho from setting the tempo through a high-pressure defense. With the Brazilian neutralized, the Whitecaps were able to push forward and score a 2-0 win.
After a frustrating performance against Whitecaps, Juninho will look to rebound when LA face the Sounders in a matchup that has been very kind to the Brazilian over the years. Since joining the Galaxy back in 2010, Juninho has scored four of his 15 career MLS goals against Seattle.
When he takes the field on Sunday, the Galaxy’s newest leader will not only be looking to put LA back in the win column but also recreate the signature moment of his MLS career.
“I love to play against teams like Seattle that come to StubHub Center and try to play. It’ll be a good game and I hope that I can have success,” Juninho said. “It’s always special for me to play the Sounders. I hope that I can score again.”