Luis Bueno
Thursday July 2nd, 2009

For the once-heralded future star of CONCACAF, the 2009 Gold Cup is yet another opportunity to display his talents. On his third club now and just barely after his 20th birthday, the sensation who once had his fans salivating at the prospect of a dazzling, skilled player pulling the strings of the national team is now trying to fulfill his promise despite playing in relative obscurity.

Freddy Adu? No. Giovani dos Santos.

Like Adu, dos Santos was primed as his country's Next Big Thing. And like Adu, dos Santos has become a fringe player on the national team, one that seemingly has some upside but hasn't delivered what he was expected to. After leading Mexico to the Under-17 World Championship title in 2005, dos Santos seemingly took a critical step in his own development. But that only proved to tease media and supporters alike even more, as many in Mexico are patiently awaiting his arrival.

That arrival, though, might never come. While dos Santos isn't yet in the discard pile -- he finds his way into national-team camps and on the field during games -- his ceiling seems considerably lower than it used to seem. Unlike Adu, dos Santos was worth the hype. Born in Mexico to a Brazilian father and Mexican mother, Gio had unique characteristics since birth.

Groomed in the Barcelona youth system since a pre-teen, dos Santos was a standout prospect with the famed Catalan side. That was the best part about him: He was Mexican and talented but he would develop abroad, far from the reaches of any greedy club owner trying to push his prospect to the youth national teams for personal gain. The U-17s in Peru '05 was his coming-out party, as he won the Silver Ball as the second-best player in the tournament. Finally, Mexico would have a player the likes of Ronaldinho, with strings attached to his feet and the ability to do whatever he wanted to with the ball.

Four years later, that promise hasn't been realized, and the only promise dos Santos has given is the promise of more promise. First, Gio's club career went south. Despite opportunities to break through with the first team in Barcelona, he did little to impress club officials.

He moved on to Tottenham and took his potential with him, but that was short-lived. Several months into his stay at White Hart Lane, the club loaned him out to second-division side Ipswich Town. Perhaps more to his speed, dos Santos acclimated himself well to the League Championship as he scored four goals for Ipswich Town. While that might be a fine club within its own rights, however, it doesn't seem like a place where youngsters who have had the hopes of a nation pinned on them go to further their development.

Dos Santos' rise to prominence mirrors the U.S. national team's own once-heralded savior. At 13, Adu was tabbed a surefire future national-team star. Major League Soccer peddled the youngster and made sure the entire country knew of his potential skills. Perhaps it was the over-hyping of his abilities by MLS that affected him, but Adu never fully developed into a star. He moved from D.C. United to Real Salt Lake and, despite his lack of production, moved across the pond to Benfica.

Then Adu moved yet again, this time to AS Monaco of the French league. In neither European destination did Adu see much playing time at all, appearing in only a pair of Champions League for Benfica and used nine times off the bench for for the Portuguese club.

Now, though, the opportunity for both players to break through on the international stage is there. Dos Santos could rise to further heights should he match the success he found against Venezuela in a friendly last month. Against a side filled mostly with unproven talent, Gio had his best game for the senior side, scoring his first two national-team goals and combining with former U-17 teammate Carlos Vela on another as Mexico won 4-0.

Adu, meanwhile, will be handed the reins of the American attack and will have the chance to guide the team far. The midfielders and playmakers ahead of him on the depth chart -- Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey -- won't be there, while Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore were late call-ups and may not play a role in the Gold Cup, either. If Adu plays well in the next couple weeks, that could open doors for more senior-team action; but failure to produce might hinder his progress even more.

Dos Santos, meanwhile, has had ample opportunity to show his skills for both club and country. He has played in a total of 13 senior-team games for Mexico but has been a non-factor. The skills he supposedly had at one point had that he was supposed to bring to the senior side -- playmaking ability, uncanny knack of finishing even from tough angles -- are desperately needed on El Tricolor.

But dos Santos still has a shot to help Mexico reach the 2010 World Cup. He will likely be given plenty of chances during the Gold Cup to help El Tri win games and the tournament. On the right flank, he'll try and harness his skills and prove to a nation that whatever potential he had once will soon be realized. And Gold Cup success could lead to more playing time in Mexico's last five World Cup qualifying matches.

But if the Gold Cup comes and goes and Gio doesn't make an impact on the team, though, he would do well to stay in the second division. And if Adu doesn't make his case to be an impact player for the U.S., his confidence will suffer even more, which may presage more bench time in Europe. Then, both players will have suffered a similar fate: over-hyped, but undeliverable.

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