When Bruce Arena set about revamping the LA Galaxy this winter, the questions began almost immediately about whether the Galaxy weren't building too old a team. Losing a pair of starters in their mid-20s in Omar Gonzalez and Juninho, and replacing them with players in their mid-30s like Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme was seen as risky, especially considering there were already older players on the rosters like Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane.
What wasn't discussed nearly as much, though is starting to draw attention now, is the productivity of the team's youngest superstar, Gio Dos Santos. The Mexican playmaker entered 2016 with plenty to prove, both to the Galaxy and to Mexican national team coach Juan Carlos Osorio. His 2015 MLS season fizzled out in forgettable fashion, leaving this season to be his chance to show that he was worth the millions the Galaxy invested in him to be the heir apparent to the throne left behind by Landon Donovan when he retired.
Not only did Sunday's MLS season opener not provide any support for the idea that Dos Santos is a worthy star to build the Galaxy around, it actually offered up rather damning evidence that the Galaxy may be better off without him.
Dos Santos left Sunday's match at halftime with what the Galaxy called an undisclosed leg injury. Mike Magee replaced him and proceeded to single-handedly revive the Galaxy by scoring two goals, setting up another and drawing a penalty kick in an eventual 4-1 victory. It was Magee in his best form since his MLS MVP season in 2013, a year followed up by two injury-ravaged seasons that left him an unwanted man in MLS circles when he became eligible for free agency this past winter.
Magee's heroics only served to magnify how little of an impact Dos Santos had on the match before he left it, and before you go saying that it's unfair to judge Dos Santos on a 45-minute appearance cut short by an alleged injury, consider that Dos Santos failed to make much of an impact in the Galaxy's CONCACAF Champions League series loss to Santos Laguna. That was the very kind of series he was signed to help win, but rather than lead, he was largely invisible.
It was more of the same Sunday, with Dos Santos offering little in attack, and literally nothing defensively. That isn't an exaggeration. He failed to make a single defensive play, be it interception, block, recovery or tackle. That, along with his failure to register a single attempted dribble—or even a shot—played a big part in the Galaxy being extremely ineffective in the first half.
To be fair, Dos Santos wasn't alone in looking terrible in the first half. Gerrard also offered very little, and it was Gerrard's turnover—and slow reaction after— that helped spark the counter that eventually led to Lamar Neagle's opening goal for D.C. United. You could excuse Gerrard a bit more than Dos Santos though considering he is 35 and Dos Santos is 26.
You wouldn't have blamed Arena if he chose to take off both Dos Santos and Gerrard at halftime, but such a move would not have gone over well with the club's management, which is footing the bill for the more than $10 million in salary being spent on the pair. There was also the issue of starting goalkeeper Dan Kennedy having to leave the match in the first half with an undisclosed injury.
Rather than burn his two remaining subs, he burned one, and replaced Dos Santos with Magee. The move paid immediate dividends. Without Dos Santos taking up dead space in the attack, Sebastian Lletget and Gyasi Zardes had more room to roam, and a much more effective Magee gave the Galaxy a reliable outlet for his teammates. Even Gerrard's game picked up a bit in the second half with Magee in the lineup instead of Dos Santos.
Which leads us to the burning question: If Dos Santos continues to struggle, should the Galaxy consider unloading him? The fact is, if he's not going to produce, it doesn't matter how much his jersey might still sell in the Mexican community, or how important a marketing tool he is. If he's not producing, especially at his price tag, the Galaxy would be wise to find a bidder to take him away this summer.
If that is the case, it would be a sad ending to what seemed like such a promising marriage when it began. Dos Santos, the Mexican national team star, in what should be his prime at 26, choosing to play in LA rather than Europe. He was expected to come into MLS and dazzle, but he only did that in the early weeks of his MLS stint. His struggles were chalked up to arriving at midseason, which has been trouble for many players before him. A full preseason was supposed to help him adapt and show us the real Gio Dos Santos. What we have seen in the first matches of 2016 is a player who looks nothing like the dangerous attacking player who made a career of terrorizing the U.S. national team.
If you are Bruce Arena, what do you do? You can't realistically bench Gerrard, but if you play Gerrard and Dos Santos together your team is stagnant and vulnerable. Gerrard provided at least a passable effort in the second half, and he even contributed assist with a well-placed free kick. He's also at the tail end of his career, and it isn't as if the Galaxy can sell him. They are stuck with Gerrard for 2016, and are pretty much stuck hoping that pride keeps Gerrard from completing mailing it in the remainder of the season.
Arena may have no choice but to bench Dos Santos, especially if Magee is going to return to the form that once made him an MLS MVP. Magee is no spring chicken either. He's an old 31, having arrived in MLS as an 18-year-old. Though he has plenty of miles on his legs, Magee is still a gifted attacker, and extremely intelligent player who combines well with teammates and can still find ways to produce goals. The thing about Magee is speed has never been his game, he has always been about reading the game and putting himself in dangerous spots, much like German star Tomas Muller.
Maybe Dos Santos needs a benching, potentially as a wake-up call. He clearly wants a place on the Mexican national team, and he won't earn one sitting on the Galaxy bench. Arena could use Magee's standout performance on Sunday as a reason to keep Magee in the lineup, and Dos Santos on the bench.
There are also the rumblings about Dos Santos being too much of a partier. These types of rumors have become everyday fodder on Mexican television broadcasts, and came to a head recently in CONCACAF Champions League, when Santos Laguna goalkeeper Agustin Marchesin apologized to Dos Santos for calling him a drunk.
Maybe the talk of Dos Santos partying too much really is just rumors, and maybe Dos Santos really was injured on Sunday, not pulled by Arena because he was ineffective. Even if we give Dos Santos every benefit of the doubt, the fact remains he eventually needs to produce. Arena is sure to give him more chances—there is too much invested in Dos Santos to drop him permanently so soon. Arena will keep tinkering with lineups, and keep searching for the way to get Dos Santos to play like the player we all remembered him being in his El Tri heyday.
And if Dos Santos never looks like anything close to that player again? The Galaxy will have no choice but to bench him for more productive options. If that happens, Dos Santos should be gone by the summer — be it to Mexico or China or anywhere with deep pockets — to make room for another candidate to be the productive superstar the Galaxy need to fill the void that has lingered since Landon Donovan called it a career.
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