When it comes to designated player level talent in Major League Soccer, the paradigm has completely shifted in recent years. Though there remain exceptions, the sun is beginning to set on the era associated with past their prime “household name” players joining the league. Slowly but surely, a new era is emerging. It includes bringing in younger, lesser heralded players who possess immense talent and figure to unleash it on the league as a means towards achieving name recognition.
Pedro Santos is the embodiment of this trend for Columbus Crew SC. Acquired in last year’s summer transfer window, his arrival gave the Black and Gold the maximum number of designated players for the first time in club history. During his tenure thus far, the 29-year-old Portuguese winger has established himself as a key cog in manager Gregg Berhalter’s dynamic tactical setup. And what he brings to the table is a major factor in Crew SC’s unbeaten start to the 2018 season.
Pedro Santos: Columbus Crew SC’s Two-Way Juggernaut
Berhalter’s system requires a lot from his wide players. The fullbacks must be ready to push forward and help out in the attack while seamlessly tracking back to defend when possession is lost. That concomitantly puts a lot of pressure on the center backs as a result and requires steadfast defensive solidity. And even the attacking wingers need to do much more than purely attack. It requires players with a solid combination of fitness, technical acumen, and soccer I.Q. Santos possesses all three and more in spades.
Promising Signs for Attacking Improvement in 2018
The departure of Justin Meram certainly put added pressure on Santos to take an expanded role in the starting XI. That’s especially true in relation to generating chances this year compared to last. Including the regular season and playoffs, Santos played a combined 1,080 minutes in 2017 yet registered just two assists and no goals. That equates to 540 minutes per goal/assist, way below what you want out of a prominent attacking player. Fast forward to 2018 and things are already looking promising.
Look no further than what he pulled off in Crew SC’s season opener against defending MLS Cup champions Toronto FC. With the Black and Gold already leading 1-0 after Federico Higuain’s majestic strike at the end of the first half, Santos conjured up some magic to start the second. It involved an incisive pass that side-spun like a Roger Federer drop shot right into the feet of an onrushing Gyasi Zardes. The latter’s textbook finish all but wrapped up three points in front of a stunned BMO Field.
His 159 minutes per goal/assist is already a marked improvement from last year. And overall, he’s doing a much better job providing for his teammates from a pure chance creation standpoint. Last year, he finished with 1.4 key passes per 90 minutes. Through two games, that number is up over 60 percent to 2.3. But to think that Santos is a threat in the final third and nothing else belies his multifaceted ability and sells short what Berhalter expects out of his wingers.
Getting It Done All Over the Field
More than ever, athletes with hybridized skill sets are making an impact throughout the sports world. Running backs who can also catch passes with ease are valued more than ever in the NFL. The reason LeBron James is a once in a generation NBA talent is that he’s essentially a point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward all wrapped up into one. Likewise, modern soccer requires many players on the field to be much more than one-trick ponies.
A good example on the world stage is Philippe Coutinho who recently joined Barcelona in the winter transfer window from Liverpool. Combining all his appearances for both clubs in domestic and European competition, the 25-year-old Brazilian has 14 goals and four assists. But he also helps out defensively as evidenced by his rather noticeable two tackles per 90 minutes in his 542 minutes with the Blaugrana in 2018. That’s currently tied on the team with left-back Jordi Alba.
Though Santos has yet to showcase Coutinho’s goal-scoring quality with Crew SC, in many respects he’s exhibited better industriousness when tracking back to defend. What he accomplished in last Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Montreal Impact makes that notion abundantly apparent. Not only did his four tackles on the day lead all Crew SC players. He also registered two clearances. Only the club’s two starting center backs, Jonathan Mensah and Lalas Abubakar, managed more.
Earning the Praise of His Coach
“(Santos’) defensive work for his position is, I think one of the best in the league,” Berhalter told Last Word on Soccer after Saturday’s game. “His reading of the game, his positioning, his execution is phenomenal.”
“One time, you guys should spend time in the game just focusing on him alone defensively. It’s really impressive. He reads the play really well. He closes off passing lanes and knows when to pressure his opponent. So he’s exceptional in that.”
It’s extremely early in the 2018 MLS season. But Columbus is currently sitting number two in the Supporters’ Shield standings. There are quite a few variables figuring into the club’s hot start. Zardes is showing signs of returning to form as a USMNT caliber striker. Zack Steffen is showing signs of emerging as the national team’s next big thing at goalkeeper. Milton Valenzuela is showing signs of breaking out as one of the league’s best off-season young D.P. signings. And Federico Higuain is showing no signs of slowing down.
Then there’s Santos. Two games into his first full season in MLS, his two-way quality has been on full display. His dynamic presence out wide is another one of those aforementioned variables plugged into Berhalter’s formula for success. It ties in with the direction the league is going with respect to how they allocate money to foreign talent. More often than not, teams are now targeting in their prime players with long-term promise rather than Euro league has-beens.
Santos fits the mold of the former and is part of an underrated and underappreciated group with the hunger and motivation to build upon last year’s successful campaign.