March 9, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Jonathan dos Santos finding his voice with the Galaxy

Jonathan dos Santos pauses for a moment, sizing up the question the way he sizes up opposing midfielders before dispatching it the same way — with a head fake and a pivot toward more familiar territory.

“You want to continue in English?” he is asked.

“En Español,” he pleads in response. “I have to try it. But maybe next time.”

As career milestones go, Dos Santos’ first interview in English — when it comes — won’t rank with his first World Cup appearance or the late goal that gave Mexico a 1-0 win over the U.S. in the last Gold Cup final. But the fact he’s edging closer to it is a significant marker nonetheless, one that shows how serious he’s taking his role as a leader with the Galaxy.

“In the locker room, I speak English,” he said in Spanish. “I know it’s very important, as captain, that I am able to speak English with my teammates.”

Consider that another skill Dos Santos will take into the new year, one of the most important in his 13 years in professional soccer.

He’ll be playing in the final year of his contract for a new coach, his fourth in five seasons with the Galaxy, with a club that has set a franchise record for futility during his stay. Internationally, he’ll be looking to solidify a spot with Mexico during a busy year that includes the Nations League, Gold Cup and eight World Cup qualifiers.

And he’ll be doing all that while rebounding from the most significant injury of his career, a hernia problem that limited him to seven starts in 2020 and required surgery. How that all ends, he admits, is up to him.

“It depends on me, what I show on the field, what I demonstrate off the field,” said Dos Santos, who will turn 31 before the Galaxy’s season is two weeks old. “I have no doubt that I can do that. I’m very confident.

“I want to do something great with the club. Be champions. And I think this is going to be the year.”

If it is, Dos Santos will be one of the reasons why. New coach Greg Vanney said the team is hoping to add a stout defensive midfielder before April’s season opener, freeing Dos Santos, a good dribbler and possession-oriented midfielder, to roam box to box and direct the offense.

That would be a welcome change for a player who has been asked to fill a number of roles, sometimes in the same game.

“His capacity to do the work and compete in midfield, to cover ground, to get into challenges, to help us keep possession, drive some of our attacks forward — these are things that he will bring to this team,” Vanney said.

“Highly competitive. Combative. That’s the kind of player I see. His wisdom, his experience is going to be important. When he’s in the right headspace, I can see a very positive nature about him, which is great from a leadership perspective.”

Even Dos Santos’ recent injury history can be a plus if it’s used as impetus.

“He’s a very positive guy so I don’t think there’s any panic. I think there’s a sense of urgency,” said Vanney, who opens his first training camp with the Galaxy on March 1. “Players who have as much quality as Jonathan, they’ve had great careers that they’ve built on having a little bit of urgency.

“Every week was different because sometimes the pain was stronger, other times I couldn’t train. It was complicated.”

Galaxy’s Jonathan dos Santos, on his injury last season

Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, center, jokes with midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, left, at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson on Jan. 23, 2020.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“He looks fit. I’ve seen him moving around a little bit and he is moving great. I think he’s in a really good spot. I think he’s excited about the year.”

Dos Santos has worked as hard on his leadership qualities as he has on parts of his game, beginning shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles in the middle of the 2017 season. The $4.73-million transfer that brought him to MLS from Spanish club Villarreal also reunited him with older brother, Giovani. Although he never really settled in with the Galaxy, Jonathan quickly adopted both the team and the city. He even bought a house in West Hollywood, where he plans to make a home when his playing days end.

“Giovani is Giovani. I’m Jonathan,” said Dos Santos, whose default expression is a wide toothy smile, often accompanied by an infectious laugh. “I’m a different player, a different story.”

That extends to his decision to learn English, giving up formal lessons after two weeks in favor of a more holistic approach.

“When I got to Los Angeles, I didn’t know any English,” he said. “I was learning [by] talking to my teammates, friends, watching television in English with subtitles. Now I understand everything. I can speak well, but not 100% perfect.”

He does well enough to be part of just about everything that happens in the locker room, from childish pranks to serious tactical discussions.

“If that was his motivation, he’s been very successful in that approach,” Vanney said of his Dos Santos’ English skills.

The physical demands of his new role — especially given the compact 34-game MLS schedule and a crowded international calendar that could see Dos Santos playing another 18 games for Mexico — will demand a different approach, one that puts a premium on fitness.

“Physically I think it’s getting better and better. Not 100% but 80% or 90%,” said Dos Santos, who still has some lingering pain from the hernia operation. “I’m working a lot on the upper part of my body, the lower part — the legs especially. I feel much better than last year, mentally and physically.”

That’s not surprising since it would be difficult to feel much worse than Dos Santos did last year.

“Last year was really, really bad,” he said. “I played because I wanted to help my team; I wanted to be there because I knew my presence could make the team better. But I was in a lot of pain all season.

“Every week was different because sometimes the pain was stronger, other times I couldn’t train. It was complicated.”

So much so that Dos Santos seriously considered retiring. Now he says surviving the season has made him stronger.

“There’s a saying in Spanish ‘No hay mal que por bien no venga,’ ” he said, a phase that basically translates as “every cloud has a silver lining.”

“When you suffer, I think it is the only way that a person, a player can grow,” he continued. “I feel lucky I had those moments last year because I know that nothing can stop me. I can handle anything.

“I know I am here with the Galaxy to make history. I didn’t come here to go unnoticed, to have people say ‘uh, Jonathan was here four years and what did he do?’ I’m not here for that. This year …will be better than the last one for sure.”