LA Galaxy can offer ex-Barcelona prospect Riqui Puig a reset after struggles, coaching carousel

It was a summer transfer window 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 these world-class players had so much in their tanks and never before has the league really been a player in the global transfer market.

Mexican star Hector Herrera, who joins Houston Dynamo FC from Atletico Madrid, made headlines for ‘El Tri’ fans. Gareth Bale’s move from Real Madrid to LAFC rocked the global game. Toronto FC recruit not one but two stars of Italy’s Euro 2020 triumph in Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi and are poised to turn the table on its head.

And yet the transfer that is perhaps most intriguing, bewildering and full of potential is the signing of Barcelona’s Ricard Puig to LA Galaxy. The 22-year-old midfielder was seen as the next big thing from the club’s famed La Masia academy just three years ago but that potential has remained unfulfilled and he has now joined Los Angeles on a free transfer.

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To explain why it never worked out for Puig in the Catalan capital and how Galaxy envisions the midfielder fitting into Greg Vanney’s starting XI, we asked ESPN correspondents Sam Marsden and Jeff Carlisle to break down this deal from all angles .

Why his Barca breakout never came

Puig’s Barcelona career promised big things but ultimately ended in disappointment. It’s difficult to gauge how much of this is his fault and how much depends on the expectations of his fans, who are desperate for a new star from the club’s La Masia academy.

He was always distinguished on the pitch by his youthful looks and slim physique. He was 18 when he made his debut for Barca Atletic in Spain’s second division in early 2018, but he looked more like a mascot as he stood on the sidelines awaiting his substitution. When his mother drove him home after the game, none of the autograph hunters who had gathered in front of the Mini Estadi recognized him.

This anonymity would not last long. Puig helped Barca’s U19s beat Chelsea 3-0 in the UEFA Youth League final and he soon became the star of the reserve team, his passing between the lines and his ability to slide away from the markers being reminiscent of other midfielders who have emerged have discontinued the club’s production line. In the summer of 2018, he toured the United States with the first team, flicked the ball deliciously over Christian Eriksen’s head against Tottenham Hotspur and earned praise from AC Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso after playing against the Italian side.

“Although [Barca] have players who look like children, they touch the ball with such beauty”, he said.

Still, first-team minutes came in sporadic fashion: a full Copa del Rey debut in late 2018 and a LaLiga debut the following year. Some at the club wanted then-coach Ernesto Valverde to use him more even though Puig was way down the pecking order, behind Arthur, Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic, among others.

That changed with Valverde’s sacking in early 2020. New coach Quique Setien started giving Puig chances and while there were some good performances, notably in a game against Atletico Madrid, he was an unused substitute in the Champions League against Napoli Bayern Munich. Setien was sacked after the infamous 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich and to the surprise of many, his successor Ronald Koeman told Puig he should be loaned out to play football regularly. He fought back.

This was perhaps the moment when his own decision-making began to cost him. He started 2020/21 with just two league games, at an age where he needed regular play to develop. The following summer, Puig again ignored Koeman’s advice to go on loan as their relationship continued to deteriorate and the result was another wasted season. Not even the appointment of Xavi Hernandez changed the scene. Many thought the return of the club legend to the Camp Nou – himself a midfielder developed by La Masia – would be positive for Puig, but the reality is there are just so many better midfielders at the club.

As Puig’s progress stalled, Pedri was signed from Las Palmas and became an instant starter. Gavi, who turned 18 this month, also entered the picture. Busquets and De Jong remain, Sergi Roberto is preferred and Franck Kessie and Pablo Torre were signed this summer.

With hindsight, it’s easy to argue that the hope placed in Puig was due to Barca’s desperation to have a new domestic star – the emergence of the likes of Gavi and Ansu Fati have since satisfied that wish – but that’s also a bit unfair. Puig has enormous talent and potential but it’s no coincidence that all four of his coaches at Barca, including Setien, didn’t pick him when it really mattered.

For all his quality on the ball, there have been questions about his defensive ability in a midfield three-pointer and a tendency to switch off when Barca are off the ball. It’s nothing that can’t be worked on and nobody would rule out a return to the club in the future, but Puig has plenty of time to make up for lost time.

Why Galaxy went all in and how he will fold

The Galaxy have been on the hunt for a playmaker all season while Puig has been looking for more playing time. Whether it will end up being a perfect match on the field remains to be seen, but on paper the player and team look like they are helping each other to a significant degree.

That the Galaxy were able to land a player of Puig’s ancestry has certainly raised some eyebrows in the league – and even sparked skepticism. Puig won’t command a designated player spot – a good thing as the team had already used the maximum of three (Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Kevin Cabral, Diego Costa). It helped that Puig came on a free transfer but his salary, which league rules say cannot exceed $1,612,500 a year, means a significant pay cut.

But to hear the Galaxy explain the deal, the match ticked many boxes. According to Galaxy technical director Jovan Kirovski, the seed was sown four months ago with Puig’s representatives. No deal was agreed at the time but it gave Puig time to get used to the idea of ​​going to LA. Three weeks ago talks started again and this time a deal was struck.

“I think the most important thing for [Puig] played,” said Kirovski. “He believed in the project and the boy wanted to come. We had what we had available and they wanted it to work.”

The fact that Galaxy have former Barcelona player Victor Vasquez in their squad (Vanney had worked with him while he was in Toronto) and want to play a progressive style was also a plus. Kirovski pointed out that Barcelona still own 50% of Puig’s rights and the deal to send midfielder Rayan Raveloson to newly promoted Ligue 1 club Auxerre for around $2m after he joined on a free transfer the year before was also showed that the Galaxy Puigs dream can make a return to Europe a reality.

“The other big thing is where our league is now and what it’s become, what it’s showing [Puig] that young players can come here from abroad, be it from South America or Europe, and still have a way back to Europe,” said Kirovski. “That was the second thing that was important. Those two things together were crucial for this transfer.”

In terms of how Puig will fit into Galaxy’s system, Vanney says he will 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 the age of 35 he’s slowing down and can’t play every game. Puig’s ability to deliver the final pass is what the galaxy has been missing and Vanney hopes Puig will deliver.

“He’s very aware, the ball moves quickly off his foot,” Vanney said of Puig. “He plays and moves and gets the ball into new spaces. And he has an eye and develops an eye for the last pass and the last action. I think he will have more opportunities with Galaxy and within our league just to have more impact on the final actions.

“Maybe he doesn’t have that role that specifically at Barcelona, ​​which is a very exclusive category of player. But he’ll really have the freedom to develop that part of his game and continue to grow that part of the game.” within the galaxy with a good core, also a younger group of players.” LA Galaxy can offer ex-Barcelona prospect Riqui Puig a reset after struggles, coaching carousel

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