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Stern tests ahead for Mexico

 By Nayib Moran

Dos Santos, Vela's stars wane after shining as Mexico youth internationals

Carlos Velo, Juan Carlos Osorio and Giovani dos Santos
Carlos Vela, left, and Giovani dos Santos, right, have waned after their stars shone brightly as Mexico youth internationals.

There was a time when Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos had Mexico's million-dollar smiles. They represented a new beginning for Mexican football, as they lifted the country's first Under-17 World Cup in 2005. The way they crushed teams like the Netherlands, Uruguay and Brazil created an enormous hope that they were going to be the chosen ones to command Mexico's attack for years to come. The amount of fame that they had to take in at such an early age was unprecedented; a wave of accolades that few youngsters can adequately process.

Right away, Vela and Dos Santos were put in settings that were way bigger than they had anticipated: first-team football at clubs like Arsenal and Barcelona. Five years after that U-17 success, they were starting in World Cup games. They were thrown into the arena with the lions too early, and now in 2017, when they should be standing tall, playing their best football, they're in a declining state.

There's a clear decadence in their careers, that only a miracle will be able to fix. The pair's smiles, which once represented hope, now symbolizes the frustration of what they could have accomplished with the national team.

But Juan Carlos Osorio still believes in them. The fact that they continue to appear on the team's roster, mainly because they're two players with vast European experience, serves as evidence that Osorio still rates them highly. But there's no hunger in them that excites the crowd. They're not making the difference on the field, instead it's youngsters like Hirving "Chucky" Lozano and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, who are winning more confidence with each passing game. Lozano and Corona are now providing the spark, the hope that Vela and Dos Santos once did.

It's true that Vela has had a strange national team career. He will always be remembered as the man who skipped a World Cup when he was at the peak of his powers. He will be remembered as that talented player who likes to watch basketball, but not football.

However back in early June, it looked like he was preparing himself to give a top performance in the Confederations Cup. In the two Hexagonal games before heading to Russia, Vela was the standout. He got an assist in Mexico's 3-0 win over Honduras and scored El Tri's only goal in the 1-1 draw against the U.S. at Estadio Azteca. He was a difference-maker in the final third, he was scoring goals. But his form has dropped noticeably ever since.

Trinidad and TobagoTrinidad and Tobago
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In three starts at the Confederations Cup, Vela only got one assist, and in the 4-1 loss against Germany, he didn't see a single minute. His numbers to start off the new season at national and club level are worrying. He hasn't scored a single goal, and his last six months with Real Sociedad are starting to look like Dos Santos' last season at Villarreal, in which he finished with six goals across all competitions, but only one came in La Liga action.

Dos Santos is coming off back-to-back starts with El Tri, but he was unable to make the most of his change. Indeed, he was directly directly involved in Mexico's only goal in Costa Rica, but his performance against Trinidad & Tobago in San Luis Potosi left a lot of question marks. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the LA Galaxy standout isn't thriving at club level either. He only has six goals and two assists, while last season he finished the MLS season with 14 goals and 12 assists.

His production has dropped significantly, and that might be directly influenced by the poor season the Galaxy have experienced, so it seems a bit confusing to see Osorio hand Dos Santos, a player who's lacking confidence, a midfield role that he has never mastered. If the 28-year-old was playing lights out, well, perhaps the decision would make sense, but if it's well known that Dos Santos is enduring some of his worst football; why expose him in a position he's historically struggled in?

Even when Dos Santos was playing his best football in Spain, specifically in the 2013-14 season with Villarreal, he always noted that the place where he best felt was as a second striker, but with Osorio, that idea seems almost impossible because the manager likes widening the field with speedy wingers like "Tecatito" and "Chucky". So finding Dos Santos a role that he likes is improbable. Meanwhile, Vela is a player whose best moments come when he plays on the right and is able to cut in with his left foot. When Vela plays in the midfield, as Dos Santos did against Trinidad & Tobago, he also struggles.

Dos Santos and Vela don't offer the dynamism they once did, and it's not looking like that will change before the World Cup. In Friday's game, "Tecatito" attempted 13 dribbles and succeeded in eight, while Dos Santos and Vela combined for zero. Those type of numbers are inexcusable for players of their importance; it shows that they're not being effective on the field. In 34 minutes, "Chucky" took two shots, while Dos Santos and Vela combined for one.

Vela came into the game for Dos Santos. This has been a change Osorio has ordered in Mexico's past two World Cup qualifiers. If the numbers keep worsening, what will Osorio do? Will he keep giving opportunities to Vela and Dos Santos, even if he's seeing other hungry youngsters raising their hands and proving that they can be included in Mexico's last 23? One thing is for sure, Vela and Dos Santos' smiles no longer represent hope for Mexican football.

Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.


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