Giovani dos Santos was still in grade school when he left his family’s home in Mexico nearly 15 years ago.
He wasn’t running away. In fact, he took his father and younger brother to Spain with him when he joined La Masia youth soccer academy run by FC Barcelona.
But it was the start of an itinerant life just the same, one in which he would play for seven teams in three countries since 2008. So when Dos Santos signed with the Galaxy three weeks ago, it wasn’t just a soccer decision.
It was a homecoming.
“I’ll be closer to my family,” Dos Santos said. “After so many years in Spain, now I get to play closer to Mexico.”
That adventure begins Sunday afternoon, when Dos Santos arrives in Los Angeles. He’s expected to train with the team Monday, hold a televised news conference Tuesday, then make his Major League Soccer debut against Seattle on Aug. 9 at StubHub Center.
It’s a whirlwind welcome for a player who has gone from being a budding young talent abroad to an established star coming to a place that feels like home.
“The truth is, in soccer, you never know where you’re going to be,” said Dos Santos, who has been gone so long that he has a Spanish passport. “Thank God things worked out well.
“This is an important stage of my career in Los Angeles. It’s a great opportunity.”
Yet, it’s one that took a long time to piece together.
The Galaxy first approached Dos Santos in 2011, when he was playing for Spanish club Racing Santander on his third loan from Tottenham of the English Premier League.
That interest wasn’t reciprocated.
When Dos Santos moved to Mallorca and then Villarreal over the next three years, the Galaxy quietly checked in with his agent, Vicente Montes, each time. And each time the Galaxy was rebuffed.
The obstacles to a deal were numerous. There would be a transfer fee to pay. And Dos Santos wanted more money than the Galaxy had paid David Beckham or Robbie Keane.
Then there were the doubts that jumping to MLS was a good career move.
The Galaxy never gave up and each time the two sides talked they drew closer, with team President Chris Klein and Dos Santos’ father, Geraldo, finally concluding the last round of negotiations with a handshake agreement on the sidelines of a Galaxy game last month.
Including the $7 million the Galaxy must pay Villarreal, the 4 1/2-year deal will cost the team about $34 million, a franchise record for a player.
“This was complicated,” said Jovan Kirovski, a former Galaxy player turned club executive who led the team’s long pursuit of Dos Santos. “He could have went to any big club in Mexico. He could have went to another club in Spain. But he chose us.”
And unlike the Galaxy’s other big-name European imports — Beckham, Keane and Steven Gerrard, who joined the team at the end of their careers — Dos Santos is coming in the prime of his. Although he has played in two World Cups, Dos Santos is still only 26, which will make him the second-youngest regular in the Galaxy lineup.
“To have a kid who’s 26 choose the Galaxy and our league, MLS. We’re turning a corner, maybe, that we can attract more and more players at a younger age,” Kirovski said.
Dos Santos may be key to making that happen. If he fits in, has success and is able to weather the difficult travel and fast, physical play of a league that is rapidly improving, other young players may indeed try to follow his lead. But if Dos Santos, the best young foreign player to join MLS in 20 years, has trouble with the adjustment and his career suffers, those players will stay away.
“There will always be a transition period. But I don’t think it’s going to be a long or difficult one,” Dos Santos said in Spanish during a phone call from Mexico City. “The team has great players. I know some of them and they’re all of high quality.
“I’ve played various games in the United States with the Mexican national team. So I’m more or less accustomed to [the U.S.].”
However, Dos Santos also has a past to overcome. While with Tottenham, he was accused of being more interested in partying than playing. Others say he has yet to live up to his seemingly limitless potential, perhaps a reason why he has never spent more than two full seasons playing for one team.
And although he has been a dynamic player with the Mexican national team, winning three Gold Cup tournaments in addition to an Olympic gold medal and the U-17 world championship, he has never won a major competition on the club level.
Keane, who took Dos Santos under his wing when the two played together at Tottenham, said such criticism is no longer valid.
“He’s matured a lot as a player. I’ve been watching a lot of his games. Last year, he was one of the best players in La Liga,” Keane, who spoke with Dos Santos frequently this summer, told reporters. “He’s at an age where he’s coming into his peak. He’s got everything, he can do everything.”
“He’s matured as a person; he’s not coming here to be living in L.A. He’s coming here because he wants to win.”
Dos Santos agrees, seeing his move to the U.S. as a chance at a new beginning.
“I have expectations for this next part of my career and I’m hoping to do important things,” he said. “The truth is, I really want to win a lot of championships with L.A.”
A versatile attacker who plays with speed and uncommon flair, Dos Santos could be used on a wing to set up scoring chances for Keane, Gerrard or Gyasi Zardes, or he could play up front, finishing chances on his own. However he’s used, he will make the league’s top-scoring team even more potent.
“He’s very dangerous,” Bruce Arena, the Galaxy’s coach and general manager, said of Dos Santos, who set career highs for goals (12) and assists (eight) in 34 games for Villarreal in the 2013-14 season
“He can be a playmaker. He can be a goal scorer. He can go by people with or without the ball. He’s got the kind of qualities our team needs.”
Those attributes also play an important role off the field. Although it plays in the center of a five-county area that is home to more than 9 million Hispanics, the vast majority of them Mexican, the Galaxy has made few inroads in the Mexican American community.
Dos Santos, the first Mexican national team player to join the team since an aging Luis Hernandez left in 2002, has already changed that. Since his signing was announced, the team says it has sold “thousands” of tickets and expects its final five MLS home games to sell out.
It sold out only four games in the season’s first five months.
“Having a star of that caliber and with his popularity, it’s a great move,” said Gustavo Dominguez, a partner with Primetime Sports and Entertainment, an L.A.-based marketing company that specializes in the U.S. Hispanic marketplace. “Managed correctly, the fan engagement is definitely going to be there.
“The goal scorer, the creator, is kind of the magician that most people want to follow and get attracted to. It will serve [them] well on the marketing side.”
Getting off to a fast start also will help — Gerrard, who joined the team from Liverpool last month, had a goal and an assist in his first MLS game — although that could be hampered by the leg injury that sidelined Dos Santos for Mexico’s final three games in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“I’m over the injury,” he said. “I’m 100%.”
That still leaves one last loose end to tie up, though. After living most of his life out of a suitcase, Dos Santos says the idea of having a home again is one he’s still getting used to.
“I don’t know where I’ll live. That’s a good question,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll ask for some recommendations.”
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