With Dax McCarty away, Juninho seeks to prove his worth for Fire

Of all the Chicago Fire’s notable acquisitions in the offseason, midfielder Dax McCarty has arguably been the most important.

Goalkeeper Matt Lampson seems to think so.

“It’s amazing how invaluable he is,” Lampson said last week of McCarty. “To me, right now he is the most valuable player on our team because of what he brings, just in mentality and everything that he does every single game. He’s been fantastic for us.”

McCarty has played every minute of the Fire’s 13 games so far. That will change beginning with Sunday’s game at Orlando because McCarty is away with the national team, which is playing a friendly and two World Cup qualifiers before he is expected to return sometime after the June 10 game against Atlanta.

McCarty’s loss could be a big blow to the Fire, which have won four straight games.

“Dax is very important for our team, his leadership and his quality on the field, experience also,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “But also we know that everyone who is working behind and waiting for his opportunity was working hard and expecting to get minutes so whoever steps in we are confident that he is going to do well.”

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The task for Paunovic, as he put it, is to “find a way that the team works” without McCarty. When asked about who would replace McCarty in the lineup, Paunovic said he wouldn’t tell reporters that.

The most obvious option is Juninho. The Brazilian has started seven matches this season, but none of the last four due to a sprained ankle and the team being on a good run without him.

“I think the time out on the bench was part of the game,” Juninho said. “I’m a player so I have to respect who was doing a good job on the field. When I have to step up I have to show why I am here.”

Juninho has been training the past two weeks after being limited with the ankle sprain. He said he is hoping to play all 90 minutes on Sunday, something he hasn’t done since April 21.

“The coach didn’t decide yet the formation he’s going to use for this game against Orlando, but I have a big chance to be in the lineup,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for it. I was out for a sprained ankle and I was recovering all this time and tried to get minutes, as much minutes as possible. I hope I can be on the field on Sunday.”