TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Juninho has a way with space, time and distance, as he has demonstrated four times in Major League Soccer games this year, so his strike Thursday night against Motagua shouldn't come as a surprise.
The Brazilian midfielder's strike from about 35 yards -- a looping, dipping moment of pure brilliance -- might count as the Galaxy's goal of the year. It certainly was the most important.
Juninho's blast in the 29th minute, along with the superb team defense that followed, provided a 1-0 triumph over a hearty home side at Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino and sent L.A. to next year's quarterfinals in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The Galaxy (4-2-0) captured the Group A title with the victory and will learn soon -- but no word yet exactly when -- who they will face when the tournament's knockout stage begins, tentatively, late next February. The possibilities: MLS rivals Seattle and Toronto and Salvadoran club Isidro Metapan.
“This was certainly challenging,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “It was a very difficult game, and it's what we expected. We were fortunate to get a great goal by Juninho, and our team understood how to protect the lead in the second half.”
A big defensive play in the 90th minute by Frankie Hejduk, a couple of big saves by goalkeeper Josh Saunders, and solid play by center backs Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza in limiting star Motagua striker Jerry Bengston's effectiveness were critical, but it was Juninho that provided the magic.
He has scored four from outside the box in league play, but this one was his nicest from distance. He took a pass from Mike Magee, moved forward into open space, then unloaded a shot that looked as if it would float well above the crossbar.
It took a deceptive path, a rainbow that suddenly and violently dipped, leaving Motagua goalkeeper Donaldo Morales no chance as it tucked into the upper-right corner.
“We're on the bench saying, 'Shoot,' because we see it in practice all the time,” said Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, whose quadriceps injury kept him out of the starting lineup but not off the field -- he came on in the 69th minute. “He can strike a ball as well as anybody.”
David Beckham, who was greeted warmly and was cheered throughout -- eliciting screams from the large contingent of teenage girls in the stadium -- agreed with the assessment.
“Juninho could do that in every game if he wanted to,” he said.
Juninho has had a knack for scoring big goals in this competition. His stoppage-time tap-in in the Galaxy's previous must-win encounter -- the 2-1 victory three weeks earlier over Morelia -- made this one possible. And he never doubted the opportunity.
“I was alone,” he said. “Mike Magee gave me the pass, and I was alone. I know how to shoot, so I just took it. ... That's what I'm becoming known for, that characteristic.”
Motagua (0-6-0), which suffered its fifth shutout defeat of the competition, was game all night long. Bengtson, supported by captain Jorge Claros, caused trouble up front in the first half, when the Hondurans controlled the pace and created several solid chances.
Former MLS star Amado Guevara added a dimension to the Ciclon Azul when he came on at halftime, but the Galaxy, tense with so much on the line, found its footing about 15 minutes into the second half and was in command the rest of the way.
“Amado added a different dimension to the Motagua team,” said Arena, who coached Guevara after taking charge of the New York Red Bulls following the 2006 World Cup. “A player coming out of the central position in midfield that could create, run off the ball, run with the ball, and at times he made things very difficult for us.
“We did a good job pulling in and dealing with him. For me, the game was more difficult with Amado on the field, not easier.”
Former Galaxy midfielder Guillermo “Pando” Ramirez could have killed his former club in the 90th minute, when Milton Reyes' cross from the right flank left him 1-on-1 with Saunders. But the ball didn't land as he desired, and Hejduk stepped in to knock it away. Bengtson got off a shot, but it sailed over the crossbar.
“It means a lot for us to have to win away, because it just shows the effort that team put in,” Saunders said. “It's tremendous. Very difficult conditions, a huge field -- it was like running on sand out there. For us to come out there and come away with a win was great.”
WORTH NOTING: Isidro Metapan also qualified for the quarterfinals, finishing second in Group B -- ahead of MLS champion Colorado -- with a 3-2 victory over Honduras' Real España. The Salvadorans are the only side to reach the final eight that isn't from MLS or Mexico. ... The draw to determine the final bracket will be scheduled soon, a CONCACAF spokesman said. ... Paolo Cardozo escaped a yellow card for leaving the field too slowly when he was substituted off in the 80th minute. Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez pulled out the card but did not assess the first-year midfielder -- had he, Cardozo would have been suspended for L.A.'s quarterfinal opener with his second caution of the group stage.
Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino (Tegucigalpa, Honduras)
Motagua (Honduras) 0, Galaxy 1
LA -- Juninho (Mike Magee) 29
Motagua: Donaldo Morales; Odis Borjas, Johnny Leveron, Sergio Mendoza, David Molina; Roger Mondragon (Milton Reyes, 46), Emilson Cruz (Guillermo Ramirez, 75), Mario Giron (Amado Guevara, 46), Carlos Discua; Jorge Claros; Jerry Bengtson.
Galaxy: Josh Saunders; Frankie Hejduk, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant; Paolo Cardozo (Michael Stephens, 80), David Beckham, Juninho, Mike Magee; Chad Barrett (Chris Birchall, 64), Miguel Lopez (Landon Donovan, 69). Unused subs: Gregg Berhalter, Hector Jimenez, Jovan Kirovski, Donovan Ricketts.
Yellow cards: Reyes 47, Saunders 60.
Referee: Walter Lopez (Guatemala). Att.: 12,500 (estimated)
1. x-Galaxy 4-2-0 (8-4) 12 points
2. x-Morelia (Mexico) 4-2-0 (11-5) 12
3. Alajuelense (Costa Rica) 4-2-0 (8-6) 12
4. Motagua (Honduras) 0-6-0 (2-14) 0
x -- advances to quarterfinals