Photograph: Eric Alonso/Getty Images
Not so long ago, Ricky Puig was considered the face of the future of Barcelona. At a time when the identity of the Catalan club was in question, the young midfielder was the epitome of what Barca once again aspired to be. He fit the bill: petite, homegrown, and extremely talented. Puig was the next La Masia graduate poised to make it to the Camp Nou, so it’s somewhat surprising to see a 22-year-old in Major League Soccer.
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The LA Galaxy announced the signing of Puig on Thursday, and Barcelona were so eager to cut their bloated payroll that they allowed the midfielder to leave for free. “Ricky is a very technical and well-educated player with incredible experience for his age,” said Galaxy head coach Greg Vanni. “He will fit seamlessly into our group and style of play.”
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In any other summer, this would have been an outstanding, headline-grabbing transfer involving an MLS club, and it may still be the most noteworthy of this summer’s activity due to Puig’s age and reputation. This, however, has not been a typical MLS summer. The league has seen many landmark deals. In fact, it was the biggest summer in MLS history.
Puig’s move to the LA Galaxy came just a month after Los Angeles signed Gareth Bale and just three weeks after Toronto signed Federico Bernardeschi. None of these players are typical MLS “retirement league” signers. They are far from washed. They’re not in the MLS for one last paycheck. They had other options closer to home in the traditionally stronger leagues, but opted to sign with an MLS club instead. It says something.
Of course, bigger names have crossed into the MLS in the past. David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, Frank Lampard and David Villa have all played in the 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.
That’s where the dramatic shift happened this summer. Not only are aging superstars looking at MLS as an option, but elite performers at the peak of their careers as well. Puig reportedly had offers from Lyon, Monaco and Wolverhampton. He also turned down loan offers to leave Barcelona in the January transfer window, but it was LA Galaxy that turned his head. If Galaxy can get one or two productive signings of Puig before sending him back to Europe at a profit, it will be considered a big success. This could be a blueprint for all parties and could form the basis of a transfer policy that will attract more peak-age players from Europe in the coming years.
Bale has been linked to Premier League clubs and had the opportunity to play for his hometown side Cardiff City, but he decided MLS would be the best place for him to prepare for the 2022 World Cup. Bernardeschi is also gearing up for the World Cup alongside Italy teammate Lorenzo Insigne, who also joined Toronto from Serie A this summer.
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Cucho Hernandez doesn’t have as much recognition as the aforementioned players, but at 23, he’s still in the early stages of his career. Following a season in which he scored five times in 25 Premier League appearances for Watford, it’s notable that he too found himself in the MLS this summer, signing with Columbus Crew in a club-record deal.
Changes have taken place not only in the transfers of MLS clubs this summer, but also in some transfers that have not been implemented. Jesse Lingard, for example, was reportedly on the radar of DC United soon after. Appointment of Wayne Rooney as head coach. In the end, Lingard stayed in the Premier League and signed with Nottingham Forest, which was thought to be worth £180,000 a week, but the DC United connections were credible. It was an opportunity.
MLS is at a critical stage in its development. The league is openly aiming to be one of the best in the world, and with every signing like Puig, Bale and Bernardeschi, the needle gets closer to making that a reality. The record $2.5 billion deal recently struck with Apple TV is another sign of progress, and the 2026 World Cup will provide an opportunity to attract more fans.
But MLS may need to vacate its 28 (soon to be 29) member clubs to accelerate its growth. Philadelphia Union athletic director Ernst Tanner has publicly questioned how the LAFC managed to squeeze Bale and Giorgio Chiellini out of the salary cap when the pair signed TAM (Targeted Allocation Money) deals. Although Tanner was fined by the MLS for his remarks and there is no suggestion of foul play by the LAFC, there is a sense that league front office officials 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. It could be argued that MLS is now holding itself back.
It can be tiring to view everything that happens in the MLS through the lens of the league’s continued growth and place in the global football landscape, but this summer such considerations have become inevitable. Would Puig have signed with the LA Galaxy even 12 months ago? Would Bale and Bernardeschi use MLS to prepare for the last World Cup in 2018? Maybe not, but more and more players are not looking at what the league was like in the past or even what it could be like in the future, but what it is now.