5:34 pm Dec. 20, 2012
Over the nearly two decades of New York Red Bulls/Metrostars history, the team has regularly brought in once-great players who inevitably disappointed them.
From Lothar Matthaus to Marcelo Vega to, most recently, Rafa Marquez, the story has played out in remarkably similar ways (though Marquez was worse). They were temporary triumphs of marketing. They were not, in the end, good soccer moves.
So should we assume that this week's signing of Juninho Pernambucano, 38 in January, late of Vasco de Gama in Brazil and nearly 50-times capped member of the Brazilian national team, is more of the same?
No. We should not.
The reason is that he fits in nicely with the team's needs, even if he's not what he once was.
Let's start with the particulars. Juninho will slot in perfectly at midfield, either central or left, in a very similar role to the one he played, and played well, for Vasco de Gama. This is no small thing: Vasco de Gama finished fifth in top flight Brazilian soccer. And Juninho led the team in assists, with eight, while adding seven goals of his own. His primary strengths are pinpoint passing, making him the kind of midfielder the Red Bulls have needed for years, and free kicks, which will banish forever the possibility that Roy Miller will take another, as he did in the waning seconds of the team's 2012 playoff loss to D.C. United.
About his age: yes, he will be 38. But the Red Bulls are not building for the long-term here, and unlike most of their history, they really should be building for the present. Thierry Henry represents the kind of talent that the team has never had the chance to build around in its history, and his near-M.V.P. season in 2012 reinforced that he is one of the best players in the league. But Henry also turned 35 this past summer, and is entering the final year of his contract. His skills could betray him at any time, and he might not even be around beyond next season. Time is of the essence.
What Juninho does for Henry, by creating passing lanes and functioning as de facto playmaker for the attack, is eliminate the need for Henry to drift back into midfield, as he so often has during his Red Bulls tenure. Henry will tell you that he did so often for Arsenal as well, but he was much younger when he did that. The Red Bulls want him in a position to score as often as possible, and not only will Juninho's passes help with that, so will the fact that someone other than Henry is able to make them.
Juninho is not particularly fast anymore, and he's not going to do much defending. That's where having a fit Tim Cahill around, not to mention Dax McCarty, an elite defender who could pair with Juninho in central midfield, should smooth over any defensive problems that come from a midfield presence with his primary focus on the goal.
Also: Juninho was not signed as a designated player, which would have used up one of the three slots on an M.L.S. roster that are exempt from the salary cap restrictions. Cahill and Henry are the two D.P.s currently under contract, while the release of Marquez has opened up a third. So if another top-tier talent who wouldn't fit within the M.L.S. salary cap becomes available this winter, such as Kaka, the Red Bulls won't have sacrificed their ability to pounce.
There are no guarantees. But this time, as the Red Bulls buy yet another fading star, they may be getting exactly what they need.