Photo by Michael Janosz/ISIphotos.com
By ADAM SERRANO
While the scoring prowess of Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan and the stout defending of Omar Gonzalez have been crucial ingredients to the success of the Los Angeles Galaxy, it is the play of a newcomer that may play just as important of a role in the team's good fortune.
Vitor Gomes Pereira Junior, better known as Juninho, has been a revelation for a club that sits atop the standings in Major League Soccer. Brought in from Sao Paulo along with winger Alex Cazumba and defender Leonardo, with whom Juninho has played for three and five years respectively, the 21-year-old midfielder has enjoyed success with two goals and two assists in all competitions and has become a key starter for Los Angeles.
Signed on-loan from Sao Paulo, the midfielder's contract and those of his fellow Brazilians are subject to a team option after this season. A serious competitor for Newcomer of the Year, the Brazilian says that although he has experienced some success so far, there is plenty of time for more progress.
"For all players in the beginning it’s difficult, but because I have the opportunity to play consistently, then I have been able to improve weekly," Juninho said through a translator. "Our other players are a big help in allowing me learn the lay of the land especially guys like Landon (Donovan) and (Chris) Birchall."
Juninho and his compatriots have had to battle for playing time while also learning a brand new language. Juninho, in particular, has had to deal with a host of challenges, including personal issues that forced him to return to Brazil in August.
In order to overcome their unfamiliarity with English, the trio enrolled in English classes at the behest of Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. The weekly English classes are taught in the team lounge at the Home Depot Center. Although the trio has been learning English for much of the season, Juninho admits that it is a steady process.
"We try to speak some English with our teammates, but all of us know that we are limited," Juninho said. "With our classes, we’re beginning to learn new words that help us gain a grasp on the language, but on the field we’re plugged into the lingo so everyone knows how to work together.”
While English remains a challenge, it is the field where Juninho has progressed the most. The Brazilian has displayed a knack of showing up in big games despite his relative inexperience in MLS. In two of the Galaxy’s more important matches of the year against Eastern rivals New York and Columbus, Juninho’s passing allowed the Galaxy offense to triumph over a pair of stiff defenses.
A key cog in the center of the midfield for Los Angeles, Juninho has spent much of the season partnered with Birchall. Their partnership has been a key one for Arena's offense, which requires Birchall, the defensive midfielder, to break up attacks while Juninho plays the distributor for the Galaxy's fast paced attack.
Birchall admits that through the last few months he's seen a serious jump in quality from Juninho, from fringe practice player at the end of last season to starter.
"By playing with each other week-in and week-out and becoming familiar with each other’s games in the last eight or nine games, he’s been on exceptional form," said Birchall. "He’s got two goals, one in the (U.S. Open) Cup and the other in league, and since he’s scored those goals, he’s been a different player, because he’s confident and a delight to play with."
The success of the diminutive Brazilian comes at a time when the profile of MLS may be at its highest in Brazil. With the league gaining prevalence by being broadcast on local television, in addition to the United States’ recent success in the World Cup and Confederations Cup, American soccer has begun to creep into the mind of the Brazilian player.
One Brazilian in the league remembers when this wasn't always the case. Paulo Nagamura of Chivas USA has been in the league since 2005 and was a product of the same Sao Paulo youth system that helped develop Juninho.
A defensive midfield stalwart with Chivas, the 27-year-old said that when he entered the league, there was little known about MLS. With 13 Brazilians now playing in MLS, the opportunity for growth is there.
"To be honest, when I came into the league, I didn't know too much about it, but over the years, the quality of play has really improved and perception has grown in Brazil and around the world," Nagamura said. "Juninho is obviously doing very well right now. It means a lot for him personally to have such success early in his MLS career, especially for the many Brazilians who want to play in this league."
With his time in MLS contingent on his success this year, Juninho admits that it does not matter where he plays, but only that he is able to earn playing time to develop.
"If Sao Paulo calls for me, then I would consider returning, but what is most important to me is getting my chance to play," Juninho said. "I was born to play so that’s what I need to be doing."