When the Galaxy landed midfielder Giovani dos Santos 15 months ago, there was no doubt they were getting a player with uncommon talent.
What they weren’t so sure about was his focus and drive.
During his short time with Tottenham, Dos Santos reportedly spent more time in the pubs than on the training pitch. So the English Premier League club sent him out on loan to three teams in three countries, beginning an odyssey that would see him move six times in eight years – all before his 26th birthday.
Now, however, he appears to have found a home – and some perspective – with the Galaxy, with whom he’s emerged as a most valuable player candidate in his first full Major League Soccer season.
“He’s starting to grow up,” said Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, who deserves much of the credit for taming the raucous Dos Santos. “And he’s doing the things on the field we expect him to be able to do. It’s been great to see.”
As a result, the guy who once had to be carried out of a Christmas party in London has a chance to carry his team to a league title, a challenge he’ll embrace in earnest Sunday when the Galaxy kicks off the Western Conference semifinals against Colorado at the StubHub Center (2 p.m., ESPN). The winner of the two-game playoff, which concludes next weekend in suburban Denver, will be determined by aggregate goals.
Dos Santos has already enjoyed a career year, setting lifetime highs for goals (14) and assists (13), the last assist coming in Wednesday’s playoff-opening win over Real Salt Lake. And just by taking the field in the two games against Colorado he’ll match another personal single-season record by appearing in 31 league game.
“He’s a different guy. Obviously, he’s matured,” said Galaxy captain Robbie Keane, who was instrumental in getting his former Tottenham teammate to Southern California. “He’s certainly matured in his understanding of his role and how vital he is to the group.”
Dos Santos agrees.
“Well, I’m older right now. I’m 27. So of course I’m more mature,” Dos Santos said with a warm smile.
The smile, too, is new since Dos Santos was mostly moody and defensive after joining the team late last season. But this year he was with the Galaxy from the start of training camp and as the season has progressed, he’s become more relaxed and comfortable, frequently joking with teammates in English and Spanish.
“My adaptation has been better, to start from the beginning with the team,” he said. “I know my teammates better, my coach, what the coach wants from me. It helped me a lot.”
Landon Donovan, who wasn’t there from the beginning, said the Dos Santos he discovered when he returned to the Galaxy last month is not the one he remembers playing against in international play.
“What’s been impressive to me has been his work rate,” said Donovan, who played for the U.S. against Dos Santos and Mexico on numerous occasions. “He’s had times in his career – a lot like me – where you get lazy and you don’t do things the right way defensively. Since I’ve been here, he’s been really good defensively in the way he works and runs and helps the team.
“And when he does that, it motivates other guys to do it.”
The Galaxy, who lead the conference with 57 goals (including the playoff opener), will need that kind of inspiration and more against Colorado, which allowed an MLS-low 32 scores in 34 games en route to its first playoff appearance since 2013. The teams, which each lost a league-low six matches, met three times in the regular season, with the Rapids winning the first one in stoppage time while the next two ended in draws.
The Galaxy scored just once in those three games – and not surprisingly that goal came from Dos Santos.
“My responsibility is just to create chances and sometimes score a goal,” said Dos Santos, whose newfound form also won him a recall to the Mexican national team this month. “Everyone knows what they have to do on the field now. Everyone is a leader on our team.”
Even the newly grown-up Dos Santos.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11