Mexico's World Cup decision on Giovani dos Santos will go down to the wire
Giovani dos Santos' inclusion, or not, in El Tri's World Cup squad has been the subject of much debate in Mexico this week, with coach Juan Carlos Osorio set to reduce the current 27-player squad to 23 on June 3.
There was one rumor-mill story indicating Dos Santos would be included because of commercial interests. Another suggested he hadn't followed Osorio's preparation plan. And there have been headlines such as, "The crack that never was."
With all the (often conflicting) reports regarding Dos Santos' World Cup spot, it is difficult to filter through opinions and come to a solid conclusion.
What we do know is that since Osorio heaped praise on Dos Santos in January -- he said Dos Santos was in an "athletic condition" that was "possibly the best in his career" -- things haven't gone particularly well. In the LA Galaxy's second game of the MLS season on March 11 against New York City FC, Dos Santos was taken off at half-time with a sore hamstring. He wouldn't return until April 21, also missing out on Mexico's March friendlies against Iceland and Croatia.
The 29-year-old picked up another injury on May 5 and didn't return until May 25, coming off the bench for 15 minutes in the Galaxy's 1-0 win over San Jose. Dos Santos did play the final 20 minutes for El Tri in its 0-0 draw against Wales on Wednesday, but it has not exactly been an ideal buildup to the World Cup.
Dos Santos has played just 425 minutes (327 for Galaxy, 98 with the national team) since his 2017 MLS season ended on Oct. 22; he has completed a full 90 minutes only once. And all the hard work Dos Santos and Osorio stressed the forward was putting in during the offseason hasn't been seen, perhaps mainly due to the injuries.
It wouldn't be fair to say Osorio's staunch defense of Dos Santos over the past year has taken an about-turn, but the Colombian has seemed to question the player in recent days and hasn't gone anywhere near indicating the player's spot in Russia is secure.
"We've all hoped for Gio to be an influential player like he was against the Netherlands [in the 2014 World Cup], and the expectations are very different to the reality. I hope that he is 100 percent and can compete for a place," Osorio said during the team's media day last Friday.
Osorio recognized that Dos Santos remains a supremely talented individual who could be a difference-maker, but after the Wales game, he talked again about Dos Santos' conditioning.
"[With] Giovani, we were very concerned to see how he is doing athletically," Osorio said. "That's why we went to the Galaxy-versus-San Jose game."
Athletic conditioning has been a key part of the Mexican federation's plan for this pool of national team players. Osorio even said last Friday that "we have to take the 23 that are in the best athletic condition possible to be able to compete."
Whether Dos Santos falls into that category is debatable, given the injuries, lack of playing time and Osorio's public concerns over the former Barcelona player.
It all means Dos Santos, who has steered clear of the media of late, is undergoing a tough and important week in Mexico City. Each training session will be vital, and he'll be looking for significant minutes against Scotland on Saturday, with Osorio having said the door remains open for all the players.
But despite all this, it would go down as a significant surprise if Dos Santos isn't in Mexico's squad to travel to Denmark on June 3 and then on to Russia on June 11. The work behind the scenes in crafting a strong and united group has been important, and Osorio stuck with Dos Santos during a 2017 MLS season in which the player struggled.
Dos Santos boasts experience in three World Cups and was a key part of the generation of players who helped Mexico to the under-17 World Cup triumph in 2005. He remains close to Carlos Vela and, obviously, his brother Jonathan. Potential replacements such as Erick Gutierrez, Jurgen Damm or Jesus Molina -- who play different positions but give Osorio alternative options -- don't have that major-tournament savvy.
So what will Osorio decide? As the countdown intensifies to the release of the 23-player squad, so will the speculation as to Dos Santos' inclusion.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.