Mexico World Cup could prove a referendum on Major League Soccer
Of the 23 players named to Mexican coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s roster for the upcoming World Cup in Russia, 12 are based in Europe, a record for El Tri. Rafael Marquez, somehow, at the age of 39, is on there too, leading a sizable Liga MX contingent.
Perhaps most controversially, three Major League Soccer players — Carlos Vela and the dos Santos brothers, Jonathan and Giovani — also made the cut. Controversially, because the league is still held in low esteem south of the border and because each of them, in their own way, was judged to have “sold out” by returning from abroad for fat American paychecks.
Overall, MLS will be well-represented at the tournament, with six players each featuring for Costa Rica and Panama plus two Peruvians and one Egyptian. But perhaps none of them will provide a more accurate read on the league’s standing in the global hierarchy than the El Tri trio. If Vela and the dos Santos brothers play, and play well, it’ll go a long way toward removing that stigma mentioned above — longer, even, than Toronto FC’s run to the most recent CONCACAF Champions League final, knocking out a pair of Mexican opponents before falling to Chivas Guadalajara on penalties.
Giovani dos Santos was the most contentious choice on the roster. Nearly a third of readers who participated in a recent ESPN Mexico poll said they’d have cut him from the final 23. Dos Santos can be wildly inconsistent both for club and for country, balling out one match but then disappearing the next.
For Osorio, though, those brief glimpses of great talent were tantalizing enough to keep him around, and don’t be surprised if Gio plays a role at the tournament. After dos Santos scored against Scotland in a recent friendly, he ran straight to his coach to celebrate as if to thank him for keeping the faith.
“Giovani is a unique case,” Osorio told reporters last month. “All Mexicans, and I’ll include myself, have always hoped, like I hope, that Giovani might be a player who not only is influential in the game but also on the scoreboard like he was against the Netherlands in the last World Cup.”
(Osorio, it should be noted here, is less likely to be blindly prejudicial toward MLS than the general Mexican public, given that he previously coached the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls.)
Jonathan, who also plays with his brother for the LA Galaxy, is in many ways Gio’s opposite. He’s the steadier hand, a player with a lower ceiling but a much higher floor. Whether he sees the field in Russia likely depends on the rehabilitation status of injured fellow midfielder Andres Guardado, who underwent surgery on his peroneal nerve on May 17.
Of the three, Vela is the most likely to make an impact. For one thing, he has been in much better form with LAFC than either of the dos Santos brothers have been with the Galaxy. Vela has tallied seven goals and five assists in his first 12 MLS games since joining from Spain’s Real Sociedad this past offseason.
An explosive attacker who signed with Arsenal when still in his mid-teens, Vela’s natural talent has never been in question. It’s always been more about attitude and commitment. At 29 and having hit the ground running in MLS, this could be his tournament.
Major League Soccer as a whole could use it, too. It might be a stretch to make a direct correlation but it’s hard to completely separate the mass repatriation of star U.S. men’s national teamers like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey from that group’s spectacular failure to qualify for Russia 2018. Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey crowed about what it said for the league’s growth that it was able to sign Nicolas Lodeiro of Boca Juniors and the Uruguay national team, but that symbolism backfired earlier this week when Lodeiro was cut from Uruguay’s final roster after a season-and-a-half of being knocked around in MLS.
For optics’ sake, the league could use an underdog run from Costa Rica or Panama, or to have Vela and the dos Santos brothers play like something close to their best selves over the next few weeks.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.