NOTSo long ago, Riqui Puig was seen as the face of Barcelona’s future. At a time when the identity of the Catalan club was in question, the young midfielder was the embodiment of what Barca aspired to become again. He ticked all the boxes: small, homegrown and extremely talented. Puig was the next La Masia graduate set to succeed at Camp Nou, so it’s somewhat surprising to see the 22-year-old in Major League Soccer now.
The LA Galaxy announced the signing of Puig on a three-year contract with Barcelona on Thursday, so keen to reduce their bloated wage bill that they allowed the midfielder to leave for free. “Riqui is a very technical and well-educated player with incredible experiences for his age,” Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney said. “He will fit in perfectly with our group and our style of play.”
In any other summer, this would be the most notable and headline-grabbing transfer involving an MLS club, and it could still be this summer’s most notable activity due to age and Puig’s reputation. This, however, has been no ordinary summer in MLS. Many historic deals have been made across the league. In fact, it was the greatest summer in MLS history.
Puig’s move to LA Galaxy comes just a month after Los Angeles FC completed the signing of Gareth Bale and just three weeks since Toronto FC landed Federico Bernardeschi. None of these players are typical MLS ‘retirement league’ signings. They are far from washed. They are not in MLS for one last paycheck. They had other options closer to home in traditionally stronger leagues, but opted to sign for an MLS club instead. That says something.
Of course, bigger names have moved to MLS in the past. David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, Frank Lampard and David Villa all played in MLS, but they all did so in the later stages of their careers. These signings have made MLS a destination in the transfer market, but only for those looking for a final destination.
This is where a radical change has occurred this summer. It’s not just aging superstars who are considering MLS as an option, it’s also elite performers in their prime. Puig had offers from Lyon, Monaco and Wolves, according to reports. He also rejected loan offers to leave Barcelona in the January transfer window, but it was the LA Galaxy that turned his head. If the Galaxy can get a productive signing or two from Puig before sending him back to Europe at a profit, it will be considered a big success. This could be the plan for all parties and could form the heart of a transfer policy that will attract more top-age players from Europe in the years to come.
Bale was linked with Premier League clubs and had the option of playing for hometown side Cardiff City, but decided MLS would be the best place for him to prepare for the 2022 World Cup. Bernardeschi is also an important figure in his national team alongside Italian team-mate Lorenzo Insigne, who also joined Toronto FC from Serie A this summer. Neither believe the move to MLS will necessarily impact their international careers.
Cucho Hernandez lacks the name recognition of the aforementioned players, but at 23, he’s still at the start of his career. Fresh off a season that saw him score five times in 25 Premier League appearances for Watford, it’s worth noting that he also found himself in MLS this summer, signing for the Columbus Crew as part of record contract with the club.
It’s not just in the transfers that MLS clubs have made that a shift has been seen this summer, but in some of the transfers that haven’t been made. Jesse Lingard, for example, was reportedly on DC United’s radar shortly after Wayne Rooney’s appointment as head coach. Ultimately, Lingard remained in the Premier League and signed for Nottingham Forest on a contract estimated at £180,000 a week, but the DC United links were credible. It was a possibility.
MLS is at a critical juncture in its development. The league openly aspires to be one of the best in the world and with each signing like that of Puig, Bale and Bernardeschi, the needle is one step closer to that reality. The record $2.5 billion broadcast deal recently struck with Apple TV was another sign of progress as the 2026 World Cup will be an opportunity to reach more fans.
But MLS may have to free up its 28 (soon to be 29) member clubs to accelerate its growth. Philadelphia Union athletic director Ernst Tanner has publicly questioned how LAFC managed to get Bale and Giorgio Chiellini under the salary cap as the pair signed Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) deals. While Tanner has been fined by MLS for his remarks, and there is no suggestion of a rule violation by LAFC, there is a sense that front office figures across the league need to think creatively to sign the players they want. MLS could make their lives easier by raising the salary cap and allowing clubs to spend more. You could say MLS is holding back now.
It can be tedious to see all that happens in MLS through the prism of the league’s continued growth and its place in the global football landscape, but this summer has made such talk inevitable. Did Puig sign for LA Galaxy even 12 months ago? Would Bale have used MLS to prepare for the last World Cup in 2018? Maybe not, but more and more players aren’t looking at what the league was like in the past, or even what it could be in the future, but what it is now.
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