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Midfield wizard Riqui Puig is chief piece in Greg Vanney's Galaxy remake

No matter how the stretch run plays out, whether or not the postseason again proves elusive, whatever rewards might or might not arrive in the next couple of months, the LA Galaxy has transformed itself this summer, and that has to do with more than Riqui Puig's presence.

It also has everything to do with Puig (pronounced “pootch”), the young Spanish creative midfielder picked up from Barcelona last month with TAM funds, and the dimensions he's providing what had been a talented but limited side amid another in a series of rebuilding efforts since Bruce Arena's departure a half-dozen years ago.

The Galaxy's ceiling has been blown away, shattered into the sky as Greg Vanney's vision comes more deeply into focus. Puig is that important. Vanney called him, without bombast, “one of the most significant signings in the history” of Major League Soccer, and, yes, that's about his immense quality, but it's more than that: It's how everything finally makes sense.

Puig, in contrast with Zlatan Ibrahimovic's importance/influence a few years ago, lifts the games — or, at this point, the potential within the games — of everyone around him. The moment Dorothy steps from the black and white gloom of Kansas onto the vibrantly golden road to Oz, that's Puig striding into LA's midfield.

It's still somewhat theoretical at the moment, but Puig has offered a bit of magic in each of his first three MLS starts:

That gorgeous, seam-splitting pass through New England's defense to feed Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez's simple finish for a two-goal lead in the 2-1 away victory weekend before last.

The quick, 89th-minute burst from the left flank, with a nifty 1-2 through Toronto's defense (off Reds midfielder Noble Okello's touch, alas), and scorching blast to the upper-right corner for a 2-2 away draw.

Another slicing pass, with fierce weight and precision, to make possible Victor Vazquez's through ball for Hernandez's early opener in the 2-2 draw Sunday with visiting Sporting Kansas City.

Exhilarating stuff, and it's just surface. Puig can do special things — that's been apparent since his early teens at La Masia, Barcelona's famed academy — but it's how he alters the landscape for LA, how he presents a different reality by unlocking the restraints that limited, as much as chronic inconsistency, what the Galaxy was capable of accomplishing.

His is an effervescent personality, and he expresses it with how he approaches the game, constantly on the move, “hyper aware” (as Vanney puts it) of everything going on, using his superior vision and precise, savvy passing to create possibilities beyond LA's capabilities a month ago.

“There's an energy there that is unique and special ...,” said Vanney, who is asked to assess Puig every time he speaks to the media. “He's super dynamic and quick, and he shifts gears, plays one-touch off of people. There's a whole 'nother speed that comes to the game when he's playing. ... He's so hard for defenders to get a hold of, because he's so slippery and he's so technically clean and he's heads-up and he's moving, which gets everybody kind of in the rhythm of things. ... It's his mobility. It's his ability to find spaces, find gaps ... pick up the ball, create new angles, get into the next line, unbalance oppositions,

“It's different than what anyone else in our midfield does. Most of our other midfielders, they just receive and they keep the ball moving quick, but he's able to pick it up on the move and eliminate guys and/or at least change the angle of an entry pass from when he received it, which creates an entirely different dynamic. ... He certainly has brought a new dimension.”


Greg Vanney

It's been great fun to watch and provides impetus as LA (11-11-6, 39 points) chases just its second playoff berth in six seasons, not a simple task. The Galaxy sits eighth in the Western Conference, one spot and three points out of the postseason but with a game in hand over its chief opposition (and two games over seventh-place Portland). Four of its final six games are on the road, starting with Saturday's visit to Nashville (12-9-9, 45) and a midweek trip to Vancouver (9-13-7, 34) following.

The side is unbeaten in its last five games but has surrendered leads before rallying for draws in three of them. That's not good, but at least foes haven't taken an early lead in the past month — nine of the 11 defeats began with goals conceded in the first 20 minutes — and LA's propensity for late strikes (a 16-2 advantage, best in MLS, from the 80th minute on) has been helpful.

If things click, the Galaxy could be a force into November. If not, watch out next year. Vanney expects his core to return.

Puig is the chief piece in Vanney's remake of the Galaxy, the wizard at the center of the beautiful game the former Toronto FC head coach has been working toward since taking charge in January 2021. He's done so in stages -- it's easier to build a powerhouse from scratch in this league, as long as ownership is willing and the decision-makers capable, than to rebuild -- and this summer's moves, solidifying midfield and bringing needed depth and versatility to the backline, have been the most significant.

Puig was not the pivotal addition. Gaston Brugman, a veteran Uruguayan defensive midfielder who has spent most of his career in Italy, was acquired in early July to plug the Galaxy's greatest deficiency. LA had struggled without a real 6 (defensive midfielder) — Mark Delgado and Rayan Raveloson played as twin 8s (box-to-box central midfielders) — and, Vanney said, “we couldn't get a 6 [in during] the summer [last year] or winter window, which we really wanted to do.”

Brugman, who also can play as an 8, had an immediate impact, providing a needed defensive foundation and improving LA's distribution. Once that was done, Puig became the target. Barcelona wanted him to “get somewhere else to get games,” Vanney said, while keeping an eye on him. The transfer deal notably included a buy-back clause.

Puig, who turned 23 nine days after signing with the Galaxy, was delighted, even if critics, who had watched the one-time wunderkind slip out of Barcelona's plans under Ronald Koeman and now Xavi, struggled to understand.

“I couldn't imagine this club was reaching out to me,” he said in Spanish at his official introduction, two days before debuting off the bench in a go-ahead/fall-behind/late-rally 3-3 tie with visiting Seattle. “Couldn't believe I would be called by the Galaxy.”

He called MLS “one of the best leagues in the world” and noted that Vanney's “philosophy is similar to what we had at Barcelona: We need the ball, we need to keep the ball in order for us to play.”

“Sometimes it's a bit of a long shot, but if you don't swing, you don't know ...,” Vanney said. “We will be more dependent on him in those final actions, and to develop that part of his game, then maybe he would be if he were at Barcelona. That's not the role he's expected to play at Barcelona, which is to be a final passer, the playmaker, all that stuff, but he comes here and he's that guy for us and can really, I think, grow in that space.”

He completes the midfield makeover, part of a triangle with Brugman and Delgado, whom Vanney reveres for his ability to alleviate pressure and spread to ball to teammates, or a diamond, as against KC, fronted by fellow Barcelona product Vazquez, who, Puig said, has “embraced me as his son.”

That gives Vanney a lot of options. He can play with Hernandez as a single striker or, as he has in four games, teamed up front with young Serbian finisher Dejan Joveljic. He can play a trio under Hernandez with Brazilian DP Douglas Costa, who finally seems to be finding his footing, or second-year Frenchmen Kevin Cabral and Samuel Grandsir, both taking steps forward in recent weeks, on the flanks. There's depth in midfield with savvy vet Sacha Kljestan and youngsters Efrain Alvarez and Daniel Aguirre — and Vanney is excited about 20-year-old Adam Saldaña -- and right back Julian Araujo can play higher up the field with defense-minded Kevin Leerdam behind him.


Victor Vazquez

“How we would like to play, to get to the shape that we would ultimately like to get to, to be able to move the game, to be a possession-oriented team, we needed a third midfielder in there who has a high percentage of passing but is also a connector with the other guys,” Vanney said. “Because Marky is a speed-of-play type of player. Gaston is a speed-of-play type of player. Getting another guy who plays that speed but maybe more on the attacking side, plays a little bit between the lines, will run through the backline, picks up the ball on the dribble but moves with it — because that's not really Marky's strength, and Gaston sits a little deeper — but having somebody who can shift past the midfielder and get to the next line and force the defensive line to have to make some decisions, with his quickness and sharpness.

“Those are things I believe this group needed. We haven't had it, even with Vic, who is our vision guy and final passer. He isn't a guy who slips into the next line on the dribble and eliminates guys off his dynamic movement. He's a guy who has the game mapped out in his eyes, and he sees everything that's going to happen. But [Puig is] the guy who eliminates people on the move with the ball and creates the next dynamic for the backline. If he can get to the next line, defenders have to figure out how they're going to defend him, which opens up your forward, which opens up your wingers, which opens up your opportunities.”

It's game-changing, but there remains work to be done.

“I think we're taking a step closer in every window. I thought we took a big step in this last window,” said Vanney, who bolstered the backline with 35-year-old Uruguayan international Martin Caceres, a free agent following Levante's LaLiga relegation. “For us, it's still trying to find the right balance between what I call space-creators and space-users, the guys who are threatening to run off the ball and getting in behind the [opponent's] backline and put the backline under pressure, and the guys that want to play-make in between the lines. ...

“Vic knows when to hold and when to play, because he's sometimes drawing people out of positions to then use [the space], so he's a manipulator of time. Marky is a giver of time. And I think Gaston is a bit of a giver of time, as well.”

And Puig, the orchestrator.

The remaining area of concern is at the back. Englishman Jonathan Bond has been mostly marvelous in the nets, but the backline has been uneven, especially on the flanks, where Araujo and Raheem Edwards have been strong surging forward but susceptible to costly counterattacks, too often with giveaways or inadequate crossing. First-choice center tandem Sega Coulibaly and Derrick Williams have grown after difficult first seasons last year but aren't lapse-free.

Brugman's arrival is a big plus, and the coming winter window could prove valuable.

“The last part for me is the stability in the back group,” Vanney said. “We've got to have more shutouts and we've got to have more games that we can win, 1-0, for example. And that's a collective thing and also a backline thing, just not having some of those little mistakes that we've had here or there to deal with situations.

“I think it's tightening up things now. I don't think it's overhauls or anything like that. We're very specific now on the types of profiles that we want to add within our group, but I do believe we have a core group ready to move forward.”

Photos: LA Galaxy

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8 comments about "Midfield wizard Riqui Puig is chief piece in Greg Vanney's Galaxy remake".
  1. Grant Goodwin, September 8, 2022 at noon

    Embarrassment of riches.  Glad Vanney is getting it sorted out.  
    -Also, if i owned a mid-tier team in Europe, i would go hunting for cast aways from Barca and Real Madrid along with a few other teams.

  2. Christian Miles, September 8, 2022 at 1:25 p.m.

    Spot-on, Scott.  Puig is looking more like a watershed signing. 

  3. frank schoon, September 9, 2022 at 9:19 a.m.

    Happy He is working out for LA. It is not easy or it is just luck to buy a player that can make an impact for the team. After Zlatan left ,Galaxy brought  in the little mexican  scorer who has been bounced around by different European teams but never made the impact for the Galaxy like Zlatan or Puigi

    So much is luck. Look at the Barcelona striker that is now or still is playing in the MLS for a Canadian team, but apparently has not made the impact. So I would say, good going Galaxy, it could have gone the other way.

    There have been so much money spend that ended up as duds. 20Million for Pepi, 'holy moly'. There have been so many that just didn't work out after spending so much on them....Look at Dembele at Barcelona....The failure rate outweighs the success rate...

  4. frank schoon, September 11, 2022 at 9:18 a.m.

    I watched the Nashville-Galaxy game because of 'RickyPoo"  phonetically pronounced. After reading the write up about him by Scott French and the various descriptions of his abilities by his coach, I decided to watch for the first time a MLS game this season.


     


    I can sum it up this way for he's a 23years old and considering his development, his Barcelona training and having played for Barca  He's had the best training in the world, he's been around all 
    the great players, Xavi, de Jong, Busquets, Iniesta and others,and he was developed at the Marcia system.  Bottom line, I'm NOT IMPRESSED.

     I don't want to hear that he's still young,just a baby, still needs to learn. As far as learning goes ,he won't learn anything here, he's had the best training and schooling back in Spain.
    I've come to the conclusion that I'm not impressed. The only learning he will get is through osmosis is how to play with far lesser talent ,how to keep your temper down receiving lesser quality passes that he otherwise never experienced and not to get frustrated and blow up because your teammates, due to their lack of game insight can place you in untenable positions through their actions making you look bad.


     


    He's going on 24, a couple of years to go before Santi's expiration date. He looks light on his feet as compared to the American players who look and run as if they have clay on their feet. He can reverse directions, turning-wise,repeatedly, avoiding the opponent with no problem. He tends to find the simpler solutions better, and more importantly he has learned from Frankie de Jong how to run away from the opponent(s), instead trying to beat them.


    He is built like de Jong, learned from de Jong, how to avoid/evade opponents, by not taking them on, run away to an open area allowing to be chased at times by more than one opponent, the better and then pass back into the open space left by the opponents. De Jong does this all the time around midfield. 


     

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  5. frank schoon, September 11, 2022 at 9:51 a.m.

    Like de Jong, he lacks shooting power or a shot. He is very one-dimensional in his play, although he knows where the open spaces are but doesn't take advantage of them when he has a possible shot at goal. So currently he facilitates ball movement ,sort of a linkman.... that's NOT ENOUGH for a star player on this team!!!

    Granted, he reduces ball loss in his sector of the field for knows ahead of time what he wants to do.

    My beef is not with "RickyPoo" but with the OUR LOUSY PLAYER DEVELOPMENT. Your going to tell me we can't  develop American players (midfielders) like him, out of the millions that play soccer here. PLEAZZZZZZZE!!!  Yes, he looks smooth, has light feet, can handle the ball, knows where to position himself....Just those few characteristics  we have difficulty developing in our players. WHY BOTHER HAVING A COACHING SCHOOL with all the latest ,update soccer garbage taught to coaches, professors of soccer (licensed coaches). WHY CAN'T THE SOCCER ACADEMIES DEVELOP PLAYERS LIKE THIS. 

    We have to buy players like 'RickyPoo'? We should be sending players like him to Europe to further learn the deeper insights of the game!!! 'RickyPoo' is no big deal, his abilities what I would expect from our players to be able to do reach at college age and by the age 22 European teams should stand in line to getting our players.

    RickyPoo looks smooth out there, he stands out, SORT OF, if you know what to look for, but there is no way that we can't develop players like him. THE BLAME HERE IS ON OUR coaches/trainers  for their lack of ability to do so.....OUR SOCCER DEVELOPMENT IS A JOKE...

  6. humble 1 replied, September 12, 2022 at 2 p.m.

    Frank, you actually know the answer to your question very well, we have no or very little playground/pick-up soccer.  The clubs are getting players that are already behind.  They can catch-up in many facets of the game, but the creativity you seek, is born on the playground.  There is another factor that I notice in development here, compared to my point of reference, Uruguay, players position in Uruguay is hardened, generally by age 9.  Then begins position specific development.  Here, no one wants to play D or Keeper.  What is the one thing you need as a soccer nation to ID and develop good strikers, and attackers?  Good defenders and keepers.  Then the goals you see, which is how attacking players are ID'd worldwide, those that score goals, are higher quality.  I am watching a lot of college soccer these days.  D1.  Top schools.  90% of goals scored are just off horid defence, ball watching and failing to track threats are the biggest culprits.   A good portion of the defenders in D1 come from....MLS Next. Go figure.  Thank you SA for the article and Frank for detailed coments.  Much appreciated!

  7. frank schoon replied, September 12, 2022 at 2:25 p.m.

    Humble, maybe those DA's should begin to stress what our players lack or need more of and that is emphasize more elements of pickup in their training. Creativity is not programmed but learned through doing. Realize not all players are creative inclined, thereby set them apart , but those players who tend to bend to the creative should be given an environment of more pickup in their training

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, September 12, 2022 at 11:34 p.m.

    Humble, it is worse yet. The kids don't play anything period. This leaves them developmentally "challenged" compared to kids 40 years ago in both physical skills and mental skills. Playing multiple sports is excellent for early development. Part of this should be blamed on public schools which long ago ended recess and physical education thinking that through discipline they could require young children to focus intensely on the teachers for 50 minutes at a stretch. (The average adult can only deep focus for about 15 minutes.)

    Don't get me started on creativity.

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