CARSON, Calif. – Juninho's deadliness from distance – either by set piece or in the run of play – had been a big part of what made the LA Galaxy go as they won back-to-back MLS Cup championships and reached the quarterfinals and semifinals in the CONCACAF Champions League.
But that Juninho hadn't shown up this year until Saturday night.
The Brazilian midfielder's picture-perfect free kick rallied the Galaxy to a 1-1 draw with the Seattle Sounders, securing a critical point as LA try to survive an eight-team push for five postseason berths.
Juninho hadn't scored in 364 days when he stepped up for a free kick just above the arc atop the Sounders' box and curled the ball over the wall and to the goal's lower-left corner, well out of leaping goalkeeper Michael Gspurning's reach. It was the final touch of the first half, and a gorgeous one at that.
“I saw the goalie leave the side open, I hit it very well and scored the goal,” Juninho said. “It's very important to me to start scoring goals again. I'm feeling very good.”
Todd Dunivant called it “a beauty ... a beautiful free kick,” and it was a timely strike, too, as it helped allow the Galaxy to dictate terms in the second half.
“We've been waiting all year,” head coach Bruce Arena exclaimed. “Probably his first goal on the year.”
That it was, and it's something the Galaxy need to see more of if they're going to contend for another title. LA's previous 13 MLS goals, dating to July 20, had been scored or assisted by Robbie Keane and/or Landon Donovan – Keane or Donovan tallied all but two of them – and as unpredictable as the DPs can be, things were becoming a bit predictable.
Juninho had 13 MLS goals and 18 in all competitions in his first three MLS seasons, jumping from two in 2010 to four (plus two in the CONCACAF Champions League) in 2011 to seven (plus two more CCL strikes) last year. His dry spell this year hadn't undermined his value to the Galaxy – he and countryman Marcelo Sarvas are the Galaxy's engine – but his long-range blasts were definitely missed.
“He had been working on it so much at practice, and we see him hit them all the time at practice,” Dunivant said. “It was only a matter of time before he put one in, and he put in a beauty.”
Juninho's role has changed this year. He spent his first three seasons – 113 games in all, 87 in MLS – as deputy to David Beckham, anchoring midfield and creating space as Beckham roamed wherever he pleased. Because Beckham liked to play-make from deep spots, Juninho spent ample time just behind the forwards. He and Sarvas share duties more equally now, and Sarvas, who has four goals and six assists, is the more attack-minded of the pair.
Juninho, who has started all 29 league games and four of six CCL matches, has done more of winning balls and connecting the attack than trying to get goals, and when he finally got one, he celebrated by shoving the ball under his shirt and sucking his thumb. That was an idea from his wife, who is four months' pregnant and “wanted me to incorporate the baby into the celebration.”
The Galaxy will be hoping for more such celebrations.