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 By Tom Marshall

Giovani dos Santos rebuilds bridges with El Tri but pressure remains

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Juan Carlos Osorio used to speak about Giovani dos Santos, there was never a sense that the 27-year-old LA Galaxy forward was a player that the Colombian really took a real liking towards.

Osorio was always polite when talking about Dos Santos, but there were excuses mentioned about the competition Dos Santos faced to get into the team, finding a position he would be comfortable in and even fitness concerns. That all built to a crescendo when the former Barcelona player had refused to join the squad for the Copa America Centenario last summer.

Alarm bells had loudly sounded about Dos Santos' future with the national team, but that situation has since been turned on its head. Dos Santos netted the opener on his El Tri return in Mexico's 2-1 victory on Saturday night against New Zealand and was handed the captain's armband by Osorio, who said he consulted with veterans Jesus Corona and Oribe Peralta over the decision.

"I'm a much more mature player, I've grown," Dos Santos said after the game. "The responsibility of putting on the captain's armband gave me a lot of pride."

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Ahead of the game, Dos Santos heaped praise on Osorio's training methods and that mutual respect from the coach was reciprocated following Saturday's win.

"Giovani is taking the step to become a different player and because of the responsibility he showed in the week, he earned the right to be captain today," Osorio said.

"He can lead the group. It was very positive for the well-being of the group and hopefully he consolidates himself as that great professional that we all want to see and be the example to follow for many Mexicans."

Osorio, who is approaching his one-year anniversary as Mexico coach, had demanded when they first talked that Dos Santos needed not just to become a good player for Galaxy, but also to impact Major League Soccer. The player believes he has done that with 14 goals so far in the 2016 MLS season.

"I had to respond [to criticism about the move to Los Angeles] on the field and earn the respect in the league," Dos Santos said. "And I have been important not just in my team, but also the league."

Dos Santos may have netted the penalty and been involved in Marco Fabian's winning goal in the second half, but he has played better for the national team. Against a well-organized side leaving little space between the lines, the onus was partly on him to unlock the New Zealand defense and he couldn't do it as well as he would have wanted.

On the positive side, there were flashes of inspiration and if he is truly back in the fold, his usefulness cannot be in doubt, not least because he constantly wanted the ball and was trying to break New Zealand's stern defense.

Yet smoothing over the Dos Santos issue doesn't mean Osorio has suddenly swept away all his problems. There were once again calls on social media for him to be fired during the narrow win against New Zealand, but Osorio defended the players and his selection choices, which included debut starts for Jesus Gallardo, Hedgardo Marin and Jordan Silva.

"I believe each one showed something positive," Osorio said. "Now it is about seeing the continuity they have in their clubs and for them to play and be influential."

Marco Fabian, who scored the winner, concurred.

"This wasn't an exam to see who will be in [the squad for the hexagonal]," said the Eintracht Frankfurt player, who will miss Tuesday's game against Panama and return to Germany to prepare for his club side's test against Bayern Munich next weekend. "The coach is following everyone at their clubs and he'll decide depending on what you've shown in different opportunities."

Once again, it was Osorio swatting aside any negativity as he continues to make conclusions about the depth in the Mexican player pool, with Europe-based players like Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Hector Herrera not chosen for this international meet-up. A different lineup and tactical layout should be expected when the team takes on Panama in Chicago on Tuesday, in the team's last tune-up game before taking on the United States in the first round of matches in the hexagonal stage of CONCACAF qualifying on Nov. 11.

"We've got the report on the United States and when the day comes to take them on, we'll plan, taking into consideration the strengths of the opposition," Osorio said.

In other words, the Colombian is not giving much away and is happy to continue to find try different formulas in spite of increasing unrest from the Mexican media.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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