On July 15, the LA Galaxy announced the signing of 26 year-old Mexican international, Giovani Dos Santos. The signing has major implications not only for the LA Galaxy but for MLS. This article focuses on what the Dos Santos signing means for the LA Galaxy. Next week I will be penning an article on the signing’s implications for MLS.
Like Sebastian Giovinco, who joined Toronto FC before the start of the 2015 season, Giovani Dos Santos is a new type of DP for MLS: at 26 years old, Dos Santos is joining MLS in the prime of his career. Like Giovinco, Dos Santos has logged minutes with some of the finest teams in Europe, including Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur and Villareal. And Dos Santos has plenty of talent: he’s a creative # 10 who moves well both on and off the ball, with great finishing ability; he is certainly capable of scoring a boat-load of goals in MLS. However, Doubting Thomas that I am (Ehhh-oh, pun alert), I am nonetheless ambivalent about the Galaxy signing Dos Santos, i.e., I have strong yet contradictory feelings about it.
One the one hand, as an LA Galaxy fan, I’m incredibly excited. The signing of Dos Santos brings the LA Galaxy a step closer to achieving one of its primary stated goals: becoming the best soccer team in North America. Since Dos Santos is unlikely to join his new team until after the Gold Cup (and perhaps even longer after sustaining a thigh injury during Mexico’s 4-4 howler with Trinidad and Tobago on July 15), I will just have to salivate for the next month at the prospect of seeing a Starting XI for my team that looks something like this:
From a marketing perspective, this is clearly a no-brainer for the LA Galaxy. One quarter of California’s population is of Mexican descent. A whopping 47% of the Los Angeles population is of Hispanic or Latino descent. Association football is the single most popular sport in Mexico. Mexico boasts the most successful soccer league in the world outside of Europe. Appealing to Mexican fans is obviously a priority for MLS, particularly after MLS failed, cataclysmically, to appreciate the nuances of Mexican footballing culture when it formed Chivas USA over a decade ago (MLS operated on the assumption that if a team had ties to Mexico, then it would naturally attract Mexican fans, instead of realizing that this branding just gave fans of all Liga MX teams other than C.D. Guadalajara a reason to hate Chivas USA). Dos Santos is a legitimate Mexican football star and bringing him to the LA Galaxy is a step in the right direction if MLS wants to attract El Tri fans to the league.
On the other hand, as someone who cares about the development of soccer in this country, the signing of Dos Santos gives me pause for reasons unrelated to Dos Santos’ footballing ability. On July 6, I had a Twitter debate with several LA Galaxy fans over the implications of an interview Dos Santos had given to Univision in which he stated he would prefer to stay in Europe but acknowledged receiving interest from MLS. I argued that it is risky to sign a player who is joining the club reluctantly and suggested that Dos Santos should probably sate his thirst for the European club experience before returning to Liga MX or MLS. I pointed out that one thing which distinguishes players like Kaka, Villa, Gerrard, Pirlo and Lampard is that all of them have reached the pinnacle of European football and therefore have nothing to prove to themselves, or others, regarding their merits as footballers. The same is not true for Dos Santos, who has had mixed success with various clubs, partly due to circumstances beyond his control, e.g., injuries.
Further, Dos Santos also has a reputation for enjoying local night-life to the detriment of his performance on the pitch. While Dos Santos was with Spurs, he was regularly spotted at London nightclubs. When, in December of 2008, Dos Santos had to be carried to a waiting taxi after getting drunk at the Spurs Christmas party, Harry Redknapp said he wished Dos Santos “Could pass a nightclub as well as he can pass a ball.”
Dos Santos then signed with RCD Mallorca, a football club based in the Balearic Islands of Spain, also known for its nighttime attractions. Perhaps in a nod to his reputation, Bruce Arena commented on the signing of Dos Santos as follows:
“It’s going to be a challenge for him,” Galaxy Coach and General Manager Bruce Arena said. “He’s not been at a club yet where he’s had those kind of responsibilities. And he’s in a community where he’s going to be sought after. He’s going to have to be mature about it.”
—Bruce Arena, to Kevin Baxter (July 14, 2015) “Galaxy Acquires Mexico team star Giovani Dos Santos after long pursuit”, Los Angeles Times (this quote was contained in earlier versions of the article but subsequently removed)
Bringing a player who is prone to partying to Los Angeles and asking him to live a sober lifestyle is like bringing a seven year old to an amusement park and asking him to do his homework. To be fair to Dos Santos, since he is much more talented than most players in MLS, why shouldn’t he feel emboldened to hit up the Sunset Strip? If Dos Santos can outperform his peers in MLS while simultaneously spending his weekends on Melrose, what leverage does the LA Galaxy have to stop him?
This leads to my quandary.
My favorite thing about the LA Galaxy is not that it attracts big stars. My favorite thing about the LA Galaxy is that it develops local talent in its academy and has a track record of successfully transitioning academy prospects to the first team. The LA Galaxy historically has signed DPs who are models of professionalism and leadership, capable of nurturing emerging talent in the LA Galaxy academy and of serving as role models for younger players. That’s why the signing of Gerrard made perfect sense to me – everyone who has played with or against him heralds his work ethic and character even above his ability on the pitch. So I was thrilled when the LA Galaxy signed Gerrard but the primary reason I was thrilled was because of what I thought it would mean to the players who’ve already made it through from LA Galaxy academy to the first team (Gyasi Zardes, Jose Villareal, Oscar Sorto, Bradford Jamieson IV, and Raul Mendiola) and to those academy graduates who I hope make the leap to the first team in the next few years (Eric Lopez, Jaime Villareal, Ryo Fujii, Drew Murphy, Malcolm Jones, and many more).
The reason why I love the LA Galaxy’s innovation of the entire MLS academy system (from establishing Los Dos, the USL reserve team, to providing scholarships that enable academy players to continue higher education while playing for Los Dos) above the signing of big stars is that if MLS truly wants to be a global force in world soccer, it desperately needs to capitalize on its best natural resource, i.e., its youth. And if the LA Galaxy is going to continue to turn academy players into young professionals, it will need DPs like Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard to serve as role models for its Homegrown players. My concern is that, if a guy with profligate talent like Dos Santos tears up MLS but does so while spending his nights partying in the Hollywood Hills, it could impede the LA Galaxy from achieving another one of its stated goals, i.e., having the best academy system in the country.
Of course, it is perilously unfair for anyone to judge Dos Santos based on events which occurred long ago. After all, Dos Santos started playing for Spurs when he was 19 years old – living in a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language and has no support system would cause almost any teenage boy to act out, let alone one earning millions of dollars a year. Robbie Keane, whose judgment most LA Galaxy fans trust implicitly, was ecstatic about the signing, and had nothing but the highest praise for Dos Santos, both as a player and person. So who is to say that Dos Santos hasn’t matured in the intervening years since he commenced his professional career and, at 26, is ready to assume a position of leadership with the LA Galaxy?
Finally, even if Dos Santos hasn’t matured and instead fully intends on blowing up the LA party scene upon arriving in MLS, if there is any coach in MLS who is equipped to cut a star player’s ego down to size it is Bruce Arena. Former University of Colorado coach Bill McCartney once said that “All coaching is, is taking a player where he can’t take himself.” Arena is legendary for his ability to manage players, even superstar players (ahem, Beckham) who might otherwise not take heed of him. Moreover, I simply cannot imagine a more daunting triumvirate of authority figures to face during morning practice sessions than Bruce Arena, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard.
Dos Santos’ first game with the LA Galaxy could come as early as August 9 at the StubHub Center, when the Galaxy take on the Seattle Sounders. I’ll be in the front row cheering him on.