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With McCarty out on international duty, Juninho faces a moment of truth

The veteran midfielder has a chance to shine in Dax’s absence. He might not get another.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Los Angeles Galaxy Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend the Fire travel to Florida to take on Orlando City SC, a side who has won five of their first seven matches in their brand new stadium.

Chicago will also be without their captain, Dax McCarty, who was called up for the United States Men’s National Team’s World Cup qualifying matches in June— something that should leave Fire fans with a sense of uncertainty about Sunday.

Let me make one thing clear: I am extremely happy for McCarty. He undoubtedly deserves the phone call that he received from USMNT Head Coach Bruce Arena, it’s just that these qualifiers could not have fallen around more inconvenient matches. McCarty will also miss Chicago’s match against Atlanta on June 10, leaving the Fire in something of a lurch. [Ed. note: Jeremiah Oshan made a similar point over at Sounder At Heart and it’s worth checking out. -JBG]

McCarty has played every minute of the Fire’s 13 matches so far this season, registering 3 assists. And beyond the numbers, one can make the case that McCarty has been the most important for the Fire this season. He quickly earned the captain’s armband from head coach Veljko Paunovic, and his teammates have nothing but good things to say about him.

Even Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Fire’s World Famous designated player, had this to say about McCarty:

He’s great to have him in your back, behind you so he covers a lot and he also understands the game very well. He knows exactly where to pass the ball, when to turn and when to keep the ball, so you can really see that he’s experienced.

Thankfully, McCarty and Schweinsteiger are not the only high-profile midfielders on Chicago’s roster. During the off-season, Chicago acquired Juninho on loan from Liga MX side Club Tijuana with the option to buy the player at the end of the season. This was a major signing, and likely would’ve been the biggest move by the Fire were it not for Dax and Basti. Juninho brought with him a wealth of MLS experience and some strong midfield organization skills.

Yet the seasoned Brazilian hasn’t exactly dazzled so far this season. He’s appeared in only nine of the Fire’s first 13 matches— many of which have been abbreviated appearances. Chicago has played 1170 minutes so far this season, with Juninho registering just 653 minutes. That’s a measly 55.8 percent of the team’s total, and leaves several questions about the Fire’s next two matches.

First and foremost, will the Brazilian be able to go the distance? Paunovic gets a sure-fire 90 minutes out of McCarty week-in and week-out, and this is something that the Fire are going to need out of Juninho on Sunday. And, well, the 28-year-old should be more than capable of doing so, despite his previous appearances this season. He needs to be calculated in his runs, and should focus on filling McCarty’s deep-lying role rather than getting sucked in going forward.

Juninho also needs to be more aggressive in the middle of the park. That’s not something he’s historically struggled with, as he missed the Fire’s first game because of a red card he received in his final Liga MX match. McCarty has been a key to the Fire’s defensive stability this season, constantly shielding the back line. For Chicago to be successful against the likes of Cyle Larin and Giles Barnes, Juninho put in a shift on the defensive end.

Despite all of this, I’m optimistic for the Fire this weekend. Orlando has won just one of its last seven games, and have been on a steady decline over the last several weeks. Chicago, on the other hand, couldn’t be on a more different run. They haven’t lost in their last five runs, including four wins on the trot.

But Juninho will have to come up big if the Fire are to make it five wins in a row. The Brazilian needs to rise to the occasion Sunday, and prove to Fire fans why so many people thought he was going to be a dream midfield partner for McCarty during preseason. If he can’t deliver, he might not get another chance.