Two months ago the Galaxy sold midfield stalwart Juninho to Tijuana of Mexico's Liga MX, the first move in a busy off-season that saw the team turn over a third of its roster.
But Juninho was neither gone nor forgotten Tuesday at the StubHub Center, where he received a polite welcome from the early arrivals in the crowd of 14,543 before his old team and his current one played to a 0-0 draw.
One of the Galaxy's most popular players over his six seasons in Major League Soccer, Juninho didn't dress for Tuesday's exhibition. Tijuana Coach Miguel Herrera elected to rest his regulars and use a young lineup, so Juninho waved to the crowd from the sidelines before retiring to a suite to watch the game.
“I still have a lot of friends on the team, in the staff. It's hard to not think about the Galaxy anymore,” said Juninho, who admitted Tuesday's visit was bittersweet. “But I've been trying to put all these things in the back and move forward in my new challenge.”
That challenge includes a three-year contract that includes a substantial — but undefined — raise from the $325,000 he made with the Galaxy last season. The Brazilian appeared in more games (187) than any Galaxy player since 2010, helping the team to three MLS Cup titles. His second-half goal in the 2014 conference final with Seattle — his only goal in 20 playoff games — sent the Galaxy on to the championship game, where it won a record fifth crown.
But after six years in MLS, he said he was getting stale.
“I made a decision to come to Mexico. I want to still grow as a player and try something different, a different league,” said Juninho, who has a goal and an assist in four league games with Tijuana. “I'm 27 years old and I thought it was time I moved out to another country, another league.
“We get paid better here and they really respect the player. I wanted to try this. And I'm happy here.”
Also getting a warm welcome Tuesday were new Galaxy defenders Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme, two of the players the team acquired following Juninho's reported $1.5-million transfer.
Cole, who comes to MLS from Italian club Roma, and Van Damme, from Standard Liege of the Belgian Pro League, signed with the Galaxy last month and began training with the team last week. Both started and played well before departing midway through the second half, shortly ahead of many of the team's other regulars.
The fearless Van Damme was especially busy in his debut, giving the Galaxy the physical presence it has lacked. But the rest of the team looked ragged in its second game of the preseason.
“It was a good exercise,” Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. “Especially for the newcomers. They get to understand our team a little bit.
“Overall it was good. You could see the difference in fitness in the two teams.”
Nigel de Jong, the Galaxy's third European import of the winter and the man who will replace Juninho as a holding midfielder, is expected to join the team Wednesday and begin training Thursday. De Jong last played for AC Milan in Italy's Serie A.
Missing from the Galaxy lineup Tuesday was defender A.J. DeLaGarza, who was wearing a walking boot on his right foot after it was stomped on in practice, and midfielder Sebastian Lleget, who remains sidelined with a groin problem. Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz hasn't trained this winter after undergoing off-season surgery for a sports hernia.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11