304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
It has been a summer transfer window that few in Major League Soccer will forget. Never before has the league welcomed so many European stars at once, never before have so many of those world-class players had so much left in the tank, and never before has the league truly been a player in the global transfer market.
Mexico star Hector Herrera joining the Houston Dynamo FC from Atletico Madrid was headline news for ‘El Tri’ fans. Gareth Bale signing for LAFC from Real Madrid shook the global game. Toronto FC recruiting not one but two stars of Italy‘s Euro 2020 triumph, in Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, is poised to turn the table upside down.
And yet, perhaps the transfer that is most intriguing, perplexing and full of potential, is the LA Galaxy signing Ricard Puig from Barcelona. The 22-year-old midfielder was deemed to be the next big thing to come out of the club’s famed La Masia academy a mere three years ago, but that potential went unfulfilled, and he now moves to Los Angeles on a free transfer.
To explain why things never came together for Puig in the Catalan capital, and how the Galaxy envision the midfielder fitting into Greg Vanney’s first XI, we asked ESPN correspondents Sam Marsden and Jeff Carlisle to break down this deal from every angle.
Puig’s Barcelona career promised big things, but ultimately ended in disappointment. It’s hard to gauge how much of that is his fault and how much is down to expectations deposited in him by supporters desperate for a new star to emerge from the club’s La Masia academy.
On the pitch, his youthful appearance and slender physique always made him stand out. He was 18 when he made his debut for Barca Atletic in the Spanish second division at the start of 2018, but he looked more like a mascot as he stood on the sidelines waiting to come on. As he was driven home by his mum after the game, none of the autograph hunters gathered outside the Mini Estadi recognised him.
That anonymity would not last long. Puig helped Barca’s Under-19s beat Chelsea 3-0 in the final of the UEFA Youth League and he soon became the star of the reserve team, his passes between the lines and ability to glide away from markers reminiscent of other midfielders to have come off the club’s production line. In the summer of 2018, he toured the United States with the first team, deliciously scooping the ball over Christian Eriksen‘s head against Tottenham Hotspur and earning praise from AC Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso after facing the Italian side.
“Even though [Barca] have players that look like kids, they touch the ball with such beauty,” he said.
Despite that, first-team minutes only came in dribs and drabs: a full debut in the Copa del Rey at the end of 2018 and a LaLiga debut the following year. Some at the club wanted then-coach Ernesto Valverde to use him more, though Puig was a long way down the pecking order, behind Arthur, Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic, among others.
That changed with the dismissal of Valverde at the start of 2020. New coach Quique Setien started to give Puig chances and while there were some good performances, especially in a game against Atletico Madrid, he was an unused substitute in the Champions League against Napoli and Bayern Munich. Setien was sacked following that infamous 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich and, to the surprise of many, his replacement Ronald Koeman quickly told Puig to go out on loan to play regular football. He resisted.
This was perhaps the moment when his own decision-making began to cost him. He started just two league games in 2020-21 at an age when he needed to be playing regularly in order to develop. The following summer, Puig again ignored Koeman’s advice to go on loan as their relationship further deteriorated, and the result was another wasted season. Not even the appointment of Xavi Hernandez changed the scene. Many thought the club legend returning to Camp Nou — himself a La Masia-developed midfielder — would be positive for Puig, but the reality is there are just so many better midfielders at the club.
As Puig’s progress stagnated, Pedri was signed from Las Palmas and became an immediate starter. Gavi, who turned 18 this month, has also come into the picture. Busquets and De Jong remain, Sergi Roberto is preferred, and Franck Kessie and Pablo Torre have been signed this summer.
With hindsight, it’s easy to suggest that the hope placed in Puig was down to Barca’s desperation to have a new homegrown star — the emergence of players like Gavi and Ansu Fati has since satiated that desire — but that’s also slightly unfair. Puig does have tremendous talent and potential, but it is not a coincidence that all four of his coaches at Barca, including Setien when it really mattered, have not picked him.
For all his quality on the ball, there have been questions about his defensive ability in a midfield three, and about a tendency to switch off when Barca don’t have the ball. It’s nothing that can’t be worked on, and no one would rule out a return to the club in the future, but Puig has a lot of lost time to make up for.
The Galaxy have been in search of a playmaker all season, while Puig was looking for more playing time. Whether it ends up being a perfect match on the field is still unclear, but on paper, both player and team look like they help each other to a significant degree.
That the Galaxy were able to land a player of Puig’s pedigree certainly raised some eyebrows — and even invited some skepticism — around the league. Puig will not command a Designated Player spot — a good thing since the team had already used the maximum of three (Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Kevin Cabral, Diego Costa) allowed. It helped that Puig arrived on a free transfer, but his salary, which per league rules can’t exceed $1,612,500 per year, amounts to a significant pay cut.
But to hear the Galaxy explain the deal, the match checked off a lot of boxes. According to Galaxy technical director Jovan Kirovski, the seed was first planted with Puig’s representatives four months ago. No deal was agreed at the time, but it gave Puig time to get used to the idea of heading to L.A. Three weeks ago, talks started up again and this time, a deal got done.
— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) August 7, 2022
“I think the most important thing for [Puig] was playing,” Kirovski said. “He believed in the project, and the kid wanted to come. We had what we had available, and they wanted to make it work.”
The fact that the Galaxy have former Barcelona player Victor Vasquez on the roster (Vanney had worked him while in Toronto) and wants to play a progressive style were also pluses. Kirovski pointed out that Barcelona still owns 50% of Puig’s rights, and the deal to send midfielder Rayan Raveloson to newly promoted Ligue 1 side Auxerre for around $2 million after arriving on a free transfer the year before also showed that the Galaxy can make Puig’s dream of one day returning to Europe a reality.
“The other big thing is where our league is now and what it has become, showing [Puig] that young players can come here from abroad, whether that’s South America or Europe, and still have a pathway to go back to Europe,” Kirovski said. “That was the second thing that was major. Those two things put together were vital in this transfer.”
In terms of how Puig will fit into the Galaxy’s system, Vanney says he’ll be an attacking midfielder, either as one of the advanced central players in a 4-3-3 or as one of an attacking midfield trident in a 4-2-3-1 “closer to the striker.” Vasquez has played that role at times this season, but at age 35, is slowing down and isn’t able to play every game. Puig’s ability to deliver the final pass is what the Galaxy has been lacking and is what Vanney hopes Puig will provide.
“He’s very aware, the ball moves quickly off of his foot,” Vanney said about Puig. “He plays and he moves and he gets the ball in new spaces. And he has an eye and is developing an eye for the final pass and the final action. I think he’ll have more opportunities with the Galaxy and inside of our league, just to be more of an influencer on the final actions.
“Maybe he doesn’t have that role so specifically at Barcelona, per se, which is a very exclusive category of player. But he’ll really have that freedom to develop that part of his game and continue to grow that part of the game inside of the Galaxy with a good core, younger group of players as well.”