Despite Mexico's disappointing 4-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals of this summer’s Confederations Cup, one of the biggest takeaways from El Tri's run in the tournament was the performance of Jonathan Dos Santos.
The 27-year-old midfielder, who learned his craft at Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy and had 28 appearances for the first team, was one of the most impressive performers for El Tri, and aside from the third-place match against Portugal, he started in every game, playing the calming role of anchor in a fast-paced system.
Mexico enjoys a fluid, attack-friendly strategy, where the team pushes up the field as fast as it can, committing players in the final third in order to increase the number of attempts against the opposition.
Dos Santos, consequently, becomes the midfield’s general, assessing when it is best attack or sit back, and looking to break up play the moment his team loses possession. Midfield protection, like that afforded by N'Golo Kante or Yaya Toure, is an often undervalued quantity in the game, and for a team like Mexico, which struggles so much in this department, Dos Santos became one of its only dependable players during the Confederations Cup.
But Dos Santos is not a one-trick pony, as he is a versatile midfielder, able to player on the wing, when necessary. This was a trait he developed during his time with Villarreal, and it's a trait he'll look to bring to MLS after signing a Designated Player deal with the LA Galaxy on Thursday.
“Jonathan is an excellent midfielder with a wide range of technical abilities,” newly appointed LA Galaxy manager Sigi Schmid said in a club statement. “He can fit into our lineup at a number of different positions and improve our team in multiple ways. He still has his best years of playing in front of him and we are excited to add him to our team.”
Given all this, and in the year leading up to the World Cup, it seems peculiar for him to move to the Galaxy, who have struggled mightily in a transition season, over staying put or going to home soil with the interested Club America. Instead, he joins a league in MLS that–despite its growth and development–does not match La Liga or others in Europe when it comes to technical or managerial ability.
MLS is growing, there's no question there. The issue here is that Dos Santos, in his absolute prime, is possibly risking his trajectory due to the fact that he will now be playing against weaker opposition, when many consider him good enough to be playing for a European team that has a Europa League or Champions League pedigree. There's no one-size-fits-all rule for players switching leagues and its impact on their international status, and as Seattle's Nicolas Lodeiro showed, thriving in MLS can result in no detours at all when it comes to representing one's country.
Dos Santos will be a wonderful addition to the U.S. soccer scene, but this is a crucial season for any player looking ahead to Russia 2018, and since Mexico’s qualification to the World Cup is practically guaranteed, El Tri needs Dos Santos and each one of its players to challenge himself at the club level and play with the very best.
Up and down Mexico's roster, this is exactly what we have seen, as players like Andres Guardado (Real Betis), Hector Moreno (Roma), Javier Hernandez (West Ham), Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Hirving "Chucky" Lozano (PSV) have remained or made their move to Europe in order to test themselves against the best opposition available.
So why didn’t Dos Santos do the same?
One can see the emotional reasoning, as, once again, he'll be reunited with his older brother, Giovani. Both started at La Masia as youth players after they were scouted in a tournament in France. Later on, they played together for Villarreal in 2014 when Jonathan left Barcelona to join his brother, who had left the Catalan giants years before. A year later in 2015, Giovani moved to the U.S. and joined the Galaxy.
You can also understand the financial aspect, as it is reported that the younger Dos Santos will receive between $2 million and $3 million annually as the Galaxy's third DP, after fetching a $5 million transfer fee.
The fact remains, though, that this is a questionable move for a player who enjoyed a productive summer and could have easily stayed in Europe. Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio is seeking the best possible combination to help El Tri snap a run of six straight World Cup eliminations in the round of 16.
Should his move not succeed from the start, questions will linger if this really was his best choice. California’s gain could be Mexico’s loss.