The former Brazil playmaker might not enjoy success in MLS, but he represents a decent signing for the Red Bulls despite his advancing years.The optics look terrible. New York just signed a soon-to-be 38-year-old playmaker with a relatively recent stint in Qatar on his résumé. It did so with the blessing of its head of global soccer, a man who managed the new acquisition before at least two of the current Red Bulls entered college. It will expect him to supply its 35-year-old icon on a regular basis.
The corresponding fears about energy and injury are well founded. It isn't an ideal plan. This club has traveled down a similar path a time or two without securing the title it craves.
But, in this case, the suspect trappings should not render the final verdict on the decision to sign Juninho Pernambucano. They actually serve to obscure the sound logic behind a decision that could yield significant dividends for a Red Bulls side in desperate need of his creative services.
Juninho moves to New York after a successful spell with Vasco da Gama over the past two years. He drew rave reviews for his contributions in Serie A and the Copa Libertadores this season. He showed why he once featured in a World Cup for Brazil and stood out as the best player in France during his time with Lyon. He also maintained a rather robust appearance record that should ward off the initial concerns about his advancing years for the moment.
His skills are more important to the cause than his birth certificate, anyways. Juninho doesn't influence matches by running around his opponents. He picks his passes and his spots. He slices open defenses with the right ball at the right time and tests them with long-distance efforts. And he hits and serves set pieces capable of unsettling even the sturdiest rearguards.
New York lacked many of those characteristics in its midfield group last year. None of the talented figures in that department possessed the necessary creativity to devise something novel when the usual avenues faltered. Thierry Henry even dropped off the front line into the middle third to orchestrate matters from time to time. Those measures didn't stop opposing teams from defending deeply and frustrating the usually potent Red Bulls at key junctures.
Although the exact composition of the midfield remains uncertain without a manager currently in place, New York likely won't suffer from that same issue in 2013. In either a four- (with Dax McCarty presumably running around like a madman to cover for Juninho defensively) or five-man midfield, the Red Bulls can lean on Juninho to play the telling pass and use the other players to fill in the gaps and supply the necessary work in the wide areas. Henry will only have to drop off when he feels the need or sees the opportunity to do so.
Most teams would have to spend significant budget room to acquire a player with a sliver of the natural talent Juninho possesses to fill a similar void. New York somehow managed to coax him to MLS for a sum that won't qualify him as a Designated Player, according to the New York Post. No matter his actual salary, that sort of deal represents a significant bargain for a club always in need of budget room during the summer transfer window.
Juninho's comparatively modest salary also diminishes the admittedly ample risk tied to the deal itself. He might care about his fitness, but he isn't young and he isn't certain to enjoy success in MLS. He will face exacting challenges and demands during the grueling regular season. Opposing teams will treat him brusquely. He might even require a game off here and there to ensure his fitness when the postseason presumably arrives next November.
And those sorts of considerations tend to validate the skepticism expressed when a player close to retirement lands in MLS. Detractors will point to Juninho to justify their claims about the team and their lingering perceptions about the league. Those assertions aren't entirely without merit.
Neither is the decision to sign Juninho at this stage in his career. He represents a modest risk with a potentially significant payoff given his ample talent. It may not look like a good signing, but appearances – particularly in MLS – can be deceiving.