Back when MLS was primarily a retirement league where the geriatric greats of the good leagues in Europe could count on a fat check to jog circles around a collection of useless American never-wills until they got too bored and formally retired, the league was a sorry spectacle, to be sure, but mostly a benign one. Now that it’s home for old European leaguers and for prime-age American talent, both groups having traded their aspirations to compete at the sport’s highest levels in exchange for easy paydays made beating up on awful ex-college players, MLS is actively bad for the future prospects of American soccer. And unfortunately for the Mexican soccer community—which as a whole has fiercely and bravely maintained its demanding standards of excellence for its national-team players—our neighbors to the south are becoming infected.
The arrivals of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in MLS can be fairly regarded as auguring a new era, one in which American players who are good enough to hold their own in a real league reject that option in favor of returning home to play backyard soccer for lots of money. We now know the Mexican equivalents of those American declensionist forebears: Giovani dos Santos, who gave up regular minutes for a very good Villarreal team in Spain to join the LA Galaxy in the summer of 2015; his brother Jonathan dos Santos, who just a couple weeks ago left the same La Liga team Giovani played for to join his brother with the Galaxy; and Carlos Vela, arguably the most talented Mexican of his generation, who just yesterday confirmed that he will leave his starting gig at Spanish club Real Sociedad to play for Bob Bradley in LAFC’s inaugural season at the start of 2018. With these three remarkable talents joining MLS in the thick of their prime years—Gio arrived in America when he was 26, while Jonathan and Vela are currently 27 and 28, respectively—the league has officially added Mexico as another country whose most gifted yet least motivated players they can feast upon.
The decisions of this Mexican trio are actually even worse than their American counterparts. At least Bradley and Altidore found themselves out of favor playing for clubs in the world’s very best leagues, with their future European choices probably limited to either sitting on a bench somewhere for the vast majority of the next season or trying to find work at a club of much lesser stature. Sure, the more admirable move would’ve been to fight for a spot at a new club in a good league rather than give up and play in MLS, but there was a sort of logic to the decisions of those two. The dos Santos brothers and Vela cannot make the same claim.
Giovani dos Santos, who started his career at none other than Barcelona’s famous youth academy, had a really rough time finding a happy home for the majority of his time in Europe. Year after year he bounced from club to club, failing to catch on at Tottenham or any of the handful of teams they loaned him to, always showing glimpses of his enormous talent but never demonstrating the consistency or receiving the support needed to be a weekly starter for a good team. However, things changed once he finally got out of his contract with Spurs and came to La Liga. First at Mallorca for a season and then for two years at Villarreal, Gio finally flourished. The Mexican attacker regularly scored and set up goals in the best league in the world during his time in Spain, proving that he could indeed capture the form he regularly showed when playing for the national team and reproduce that at club level. Villarreal finished sixth place in La Liga both of his seasons there, and while he probably would’ve either had to embrace a backup role or find a new team the following season, it should’ve been pretty easy for him to land somewhere offering lots of minutes in a very good league.
Jonathan dos Santos’s story was similar to Gio’s. He too began his career at Barcelona, where he remained as a seldom-used backup until he moved to Villarreal ahead of the 2013-14 season. With the Yellow Submarine, he quickly gained a prominent role in the squad, playing an average of 40 matches a season in all competitions, the vast majority of them coming as a starter. His versatility (Jonathan has played literally every position in midfield and attack, save striker) made him a useful La Liga-quality player, and he probably would still be a starter there today had he not left.
Vela, too, had a little bit of trouble getting his career started. Once he landed in Spain with Real Sociedad in 2011, though, he took off immediately. Right away he emerged as one of the most promising young stars in La Liga, tearing shit up alongside the similarly talented Antoine Griezmann in his first few years with La Real. Vela had his best year during the 2013-14 campaign, tallying 16 goals and 12 assists in league play and had his name bandied about as a potential addition to some really big clubs in the aftermath. The reason Vela never got that move from the consistently upper-midtable Real Sociedad to an even bigger club in Spain or England was probably down to his famously mercurial character. Vela regularly got into trouble with managers because of his lack of commitment and professionalism. Still, as frustrating a player as he could be, no manager could afford keeping him out of the team for long because he is just so damn good.
There is a certain throughline between all three of these Mexican players that probably explains both their relative struggles during their careers and their decision to flee elite soccer for the safety of MLS. All three of these players have long been considered extraordinary talents, yet never fully capitalized on their gifts—something their fans usually attributed to their lack determination and drive. Gio never looked all that interested in fighting for a place in any of the teams he played for until the future of his career was on the line once he left Tottenham and joined Mallorca; Jonathan was perfectly content with the mere handful of yearly substitute appearances he’d get as a backup’s backup at Barcelona, and never tried pushing himself by accepting a loan or a transfer anywhere else even though it was clear Barça had no use for him; Vela’s talents were so self-evident that he couldn’t help but kick in the goals once he was made a starter at La Real, but you can’t escape the feeling he could’ve been so much more had he pushed himself harder.
Right when these players demonstrated without a doubt that they had what it takes to make it in the big leagues, they high-tailed it for the scrubs division rather than cementing their legacies somewhere where it matters. Of course, one should not question the economic calculations each of these players made, which led them to take what had to be significant raises from what they were making in the notoriously poorly-paying Spanish league; careers in sports are short, and by all means, make as much money as you can, when you can.
Even so, sports fans should always demand the most out of their players; fans can acknowledge economic realities and the right of a player to get paid while he can while still heckling and shaming, say, Vela for going to LAFC or Bradley for ditching Rome for Toronto or Oscar for wasting his talents by playing in China. The final decision about what to do with their careers is, without question, the player’s, but as former USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann always made sure to point out, without a rabidly demanding fan base constantly pushing players to maximize their abilities, it’s much harder for a city or a country or a region to produce what they all want, which is top-level soccer.
The incrementalist improvement rhetoric MLS uses as the wool to pull over fans’ heads to get them to ignore the league’s structural flaws and its ponzi scheme-like business model does not excuse the theft of North America’s best players from the European fires that hone elite talent for a cushy beach vacation. MLS will not automatically be good now that established Americans and Mexicans are willing to slum it with the Chicago Fire rather than testing themselves at Stoke City. Giovani’s relatively disappointing exploits so far in his MLS career is itself solid evidence that nabbing good but unambitious players from Europe and bringing them stateside isn’t some new dawn of domestic soccer greatness. Try as the league might to convince spectators otherwise, no one should buy that growth in American soccer can be obtained primarily through a handful of shiny trinkets distracting from the foundational problems that restrict soccer’s development here.
MLS is a shitty league that is shitty on purpose in an effort for the league’s wealthy owners to not have to expose themselves to risks or the large salary costs that are fundamental aspects of soccer at the highest level. Any national team whose most talented players spend their prime years in MLS will be a shitty national team. And any fan base, be it American or Mexican, that doesn’t demand better is tacitly acquiescing to mediocrity. Don’t be like us, Mexico. Do better.