There is a world-wide assumption that, when it comes to a ball, Americans can only throw and catch while Brazilians can do the samba with the ball at their feet and never miss a step. Every time a Brazilian joins a MLS team, the fans greet those players like time-travelers from the future, eager to see what new wonders these visitors have to display.
So when word spread that Bruce Arena had signed three (!!!) Brazilians from legendary club São Paulo (that’s where Kaka started!!!) on loan this year, two of whom had the requisite one-word names (Leonardo and Juninho!!!) many Galaxy fans were all a-flutter in anticipation. When Eddie Lewis went out injured in the 26th minute of the Galaxy’s opening game against the New England Revolution and was replaced on the wing by Alex Cazumba, he joined a line-up that had Leonardo in the back and Juninho in the midfield. For the next hour, the Galaxy were sporting all three of their Brazilians on the field.
However, the one player on the pitch who was the most fleet of foot and deft of touch did not learn his football in the slums of Rio. His apprenticeship came playing for Redlands East Valley High School. Landon Donovan was far and away the best player on the pitch, and his running with the ball and crossing to players in the box completely unbalanced the Revs. Those that were worried that his success with Everton would rob him of his fire back in the quieter, more sedate MLS were mistaken. Perhaps Donovan realized how good he actually is during his stay in Merseyside, and he wanted to put that new knowledge on display for everyone else.
Before many customers had found their seats, Donovan’s skills generated the first goal. In the fifth minute, Donovan took a freekick from a spot parallel to the top of the box near the side line and sent in a curling, speedy ball that evaded the defense and aimed right on Edson Buddle’s forehead. The ball had so much pace that once Buddle directed it towards goal, Rev keeper Preston Burpo could not raise his arm before it bulged the back netting.
Without the injured Shalrie Joseph to boss the midfield and try to maintain possession for the Revolution, Burpo knew there was more of that to come. Leonardo headed just over from a Donovan corner. A Donovan cross to Buddle at the top of the box was perfect and sent just wide by the Galaxy striker. Another Donovan cross to Mike McGee was sent so high over the bar by McGee that it nearly knocked the Hubble telescope off its orbit. Omar Gonzalez had his header off a Donovan cross well saved by Burpo. Finally, in the most comical play of the night, with a few minutes to play, Donovan got possession of the ball just over the midway line and streaked past his defender to move clear on goal. Running down the other side of the field was Cazumba. Donovan stopped in the box and crossed the perfect ball for Cazumba to tap into an empty net…..but suddenly Cazumba was nowhere to be found. He had inexplicably slowed down and by the time Cazumba retrieved the ball, the opportunity was gone. After his early assist on the Buddle goal, Donovan could have had four or five more, but it turned out that one was enough to secure the victory for the Galaxy.
That play by Cazumba typified the night for all three Brazilians. Cazumba seemed to mis-timing his runs and passes all night. Juninho showed some good moments but tangled his feet with the ball in promising positions three or four times and completely missed passing to a streaking Donovan in on goal in the 51st minute. And, during the only good spell by the Revs in the first 12 minutes for the second half, Leonardo was soundly beaten three times. Leonardo was turned at the goal line by Zack Schilawski, and mistimed his headers twice to gift Kehli Dube two golden chances which Dube completely flubbed. The Galaxy were fortunate to survive that barrage and keep their shutout.
You never want to read too much into a player’s performance in just their first game. The conventional wisdom is that all three players have impressed Arena in training, and it will always take time to adjust to a new league and new teammates. However, there are stories floating around the Galaxy camp that the Brazilians are a little bit of a team apart in the locker room. None of them speak english and it has been a struggle for the rest of the team to reach a complete soccer understanding with them. For the Galaxy, that rapport needs to come soon because the first Superclassico of the year against Chivas USA is this Thursday.
While Arena may need to spend some time this week getting the Brazilians to look more like, well, players from Brazil, new Chivas coach Martín Vásquez will have a much greater problem – how to keep Donovan from slicing his team open.
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