Picture the scene: a ball into the box is only partially cleared and an opposing midfielder takes up possession some 30 metres from goal. Despite the formidable distance, the player takes a touch before arrowing an unstoppable drive beyond the keeper’s outstretched arms and into the top corner to send the fans into raptures.
Stunning strikes like these have been commonplace for Major League Soccer high-flyers Los Angeles Galaxy this season and, perhaps surprisingly, the club’s biggest-name star David Beckham, who first rose to prominence thanks to his willingness to shoot from distance, is not the man responsible. Indeed, the player behind these long-range wonder goals is Juninho, who is looking ever more capable of following in the footsteps of the Galaxy’s main attraction.
On loan since 2010 from Sao Paulo, where he came up through the youth ranks, the 22-year-old has four such rockets to his name this MLS campaign alone, with the goals coming against Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. Nor must we forget another long-range effort against Honduran outfit Motagua, which helped secured Galaxy a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals.
“He came over to me and recalled what he’d said to me a while ago now, which was that I should shoot from distance more. He’s always said I’ve got the quality to do that,” Juninho told FIFA.com on Beckham’s reaction to this purple patch in front of goal. “That’s what he’s like in training too. He jokes that when I get the ball on the edge of the box, there’s only one place it’s going and that’s in the net.”
Sometimes he walks by and says that he likes my clothes, which is a good sign. It means I’ve passed the test!
And having played a key role in the Galaxy’s excellent regular-season results and been selected for July’s MLS All-Star Game, this native of Sao Jose dos Campos in Sao Paulo state is now fully focused on his side's bid for a third MLS Cup title in 20 November’s final against Houston Dynamo.
“We came close in 2010, but we’ve got a stronger and better balanced squad now,” said Juninho. “We kept the same core and were boosted by the arrival of players like Robbie Keane. We’ve done everything right so far and we’ve got the advantage that the decider will be played on our home patch.
"But it won’t be easy because Houston have an experienced team and are very dangerous in the air. We’ll need to be careful,” warned the midfielder, doubtless recalling the Galaxy’s 3-1 regular-season defeat by the Dynamo, which featured two goals originating from aerial balls.
Another of the factors behind the Californian club’s rise to this year’s final is the good atmosphere in the Galaxy camp, with midfield colleagues Juninho and Beckham particularly close. “We get on really well,” said the Brazilian half of the duo. “He’s someone who’s won everything in the game, but even so he’s humble, gives me tips and likes a joke. He’s helped me a lot.”
‘Becks’, for his part, was happy to return the compliment. “[Juninho] is one of the reasons I’ve racked up so many assists this year, because he’s freed me up to push forward,” explained the former England captain, who has 15 assists to his name in the 2011 MLS so far. “We work really well together. He’s a superb player.”
Yet though the pair have been dovetailing so well on the pitch, Juninho admitted he still trails behind the ultra-modern Beckham in the fashion stakes: “He’s quite a vain guy who dresses well. Even before leaving the dressing room he puts on aftershave and hair products and the lads stand there watching, trying to see how he does it,” joked Galaxy’s No19. “But I just do my own thing. Sometimes he walks by and says that he likes my clothes, which is a good sign. It means I’ve passed the test!”
On form and full of confidence, Juninho is determined to end the 2011 MLS campaign on a high before turning his focus to discussions on whether to stay at the Galaxy or return to Sao Paulo. Whatever happens, the Brazilian has learned to get by in both English and Spanish, had a taste of Los Angeles life and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Beckham, while victory in the MLS Cup would prove a fitting farewell should a change of pastures be on the horizon. What is more, success on 20 November would match the feats of Seleção legend Pele, a US champion with New York Cosmos in 1977.
“It’s true, he won the championship here," said Juninho. "It’d be incredible if I could do the same and go down in Galaxy and MLS history. I’m really happy about everything that I’ve been doing. I can say without a word of a lie that I’ve made the most of my time here, that I’ve grown as a player and a person, and that I’ve achieved something cool. I’ve been really well looked after here and want to give everything I’ve got to repay the team for that. If at all possible, by winning the title.”