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Giovani dos Santos is attracting fans to games regardless of team loyalty

Giovani dos Santos is attracting fans to games regardless of team loyalty
Forward Giovani Dos Santos shakes hands with fans following a victory over Central FC in his debut with the Galaxy. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Geraldo Romero and James Colin are soccer fans who live less than 20 miles from San Jose's new Avaya Stadium. Yet, they had never attended a Major League Soccer game until Friday.

And even then they hadn't come to see the league or its teams. They came because of one player.

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"We got front-row seats to see Giovani dos Santos," said Colin, dressed in a green Mexican national team jersey with Dos Santos' name and number on the back.

That hardly makes the two 20-year-olds unique. Although Dos Santos, Mexico's star midfielder, has played only four MLS games since agreeing to a franchise-record $34-million deal with the Galaxy last month, Giomania has created a level of excitement the league hasn't had since the Galaxy's signing of David Beckham in 2007.

The Galaxy's five MLS games with Dos Santos were sellouts and the club expects its final three home games to sell out.

The Galaxy sold out only two regular-season home games last season.

Dos Santos' league debut drew the largest TV audience for an MLS game on ESPN Deportes. So two weeks later the network devoted an unprecedented seven hours to pregame and postgame coverage of the Galaxy's game with New York City FC and was rewarded with the network's second-largest MLS audience.

"Giovani dos Santos has turned so many Mexicans over [to MLS]," Colin said. "I was never a fan of MLS. But once Giovani dos Santos came, I started supporting it more and watching it more."

The league claims it has always done well with Latinos, saying they account for a third of its fan base, the highest percentage among the five major U.S. professional sports leagues. But it hasn't done as well with Mexicans, who have remained fiercely loyal to the Mexican league and to Mexico's national team.

As the first Mexican national team star to join MLS in his prime, the 26-year-old Dos Santos may be changing that. And the fact he landed in Southern California, home to more Mexicans than any place outside Mexico, has played a big part in fueling that change.

"It's been sensational. It's the ideal marriage for Giovani and MLS," said Luis Roberto Alves, commonly known as "Zague," a former Mexican league and national team standout who is an ESPN analyst.

"He's young. He's hungry because he wants to demonstrate his talents. So it was a really good decision for both MLS and the Galaxy."

The league started down this road a couple of times before. In its inaugural season, the Galaxy had colorful Mexican national team goalkeeper Jorge Campos, who helped draw a record crowd of 69,255 to the team's first game at the Rose Bowl. But two seasons later, after losing his starting job, Campos was shipped to Chicago, where he played only eight games before returning to Mexico.

More recently, MLS lured north World Cup stars Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Rafa Marquez. And though both, like Beckham, were on the downside of their careers, a study by R. Todd Jewell, an economics professor at Texas State University, found those three had more of an effect on spiking attendance at their games than any other players in the league's designated-player era.

Dos Santos appears to be having a similar effect.

Dozens of people crowded the Galaxy's hotel in Dallas this month, hoping for a glimpse of Dos Santos. And the game drew the fourth-largest Toyota Stadium crowd, with many fans wearing old-school Mexican jerseys or new Galaxy shirts and cheering the visiting team.

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It was little different in San Jose, where Friday's game sold out days in advance.

"I'm Mexican, so I support Gio either way," said Nayeli Garcia of San Jose, who betrayed her divided loyalties by wearing a green Mexican national team jersey beneath a blue Earthquakes cap.

"He came over here to MLS and it's like, 'Wow, you're so big and come over to the U.S.?' It's cool."

However, Alves and others caution against going too far in comparing Dos Santos to Beckham, who changed the league by giving it instant credibility and earning it worldwide recognition.

"It's different," said Coach Bruce Arena, who joined the Galaxy in Beckham's third season. "Gio's following is more of an ethnic following. David's more of a soccer player, sex symbol, global figure.

"They're two different animals."

Dos Santos has had a more immediate effect on the field, though. Injuries and an apparent lack of interest limited Beckham to two MLS starts, and two assists, in his first season, with the Galaxy finishing fifth in the six-team Western Conference.

In less than a month with the team, Dos Santos has started four times, scoring twice and contributing three assists, helping the Galaxy to three victories and the best record in the league.

With Dos Santos signed through 2019, the question is whether MLS will be able to entice more Mexican players to join a league awash with big-name European players such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo.

"Just imagine Chicago with a Mexican, for example," Alves said. "But they must be competitive players. I think that's the aim of the league too.

"Bringing more Mexicans would be an important step."

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