National Writer: Charles Boehm

Riqui Puig emerges as face of LA Galaxy: “I need to take this role"


WASHINGTON – The MLS All-Stars held their first training session in warm, humid conditions at American University on Monday, a typical July morning in the United States’ capital city ahead of Wednesday's matchup with Arsenal FC at Audi Field (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). But somehow Riqui Puig came through the workout looking cool and calm, despite being clad in a long-sleeved shirt.

Reasons for hope

Never let them see you sweat? The Spaniard’s quick grin when speaking to suggested he’s maintaining his equilibrium amid a relentlessly challenging season with the LA Galaxy, nearly one year on from his head-turning arrival from FC Barcelona.

“I'm one year here, and the adaptation, it's not easy,” said Puig. “It's like, it's the opposite [of] LaLiga. And I think that I need time. The team, maybe they need time to understand my type of play. But I think that I'm very happy with my teammates. I have really good atmosphere inside the locker room. And yeah, I think we need to improve a little bit more.”

Haunted by both underachievement and viciously poor luck, the Galaxy enter the Leagues Cup break second from bottom in the MLS Western Conference standings with a 5W-10L-7D record. Losing star striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and veteran defender Martin Caceres to season-ending injuries constituted two more body blows, and a ban on international inbound transfers in the summer window as part of sanctions for salary-budget rules has constrained their ability to reinforce their roster.

Yet there are reasons for hope in Carson. Last weekend’s 4-2 setback at Vancouver was actually the Gs’ first league loss since May, as they produced a series of creditable draws followed by impressive wins over LAFC and Philadelphia, last year’s MLS Cup finalists, to underline the potential that still exists under all the frustration.

“The game against Vancouver, I think it's a mistake. We have like four, six games in a row that we don't lose, and I think that we are on a good page,” said Puig. “All the team are very happy because we do things really good and we improve a lot.

“We don’t have luck in the last two, three months, and now in the last two, three games, we score goals and we don't give a lot of opportunities to the other teams,” he added. “This is so, so, so good for us, and I think that we improve a lot defensively.”

He loves LA

Perhaps most importantly, Puig has found a rhythm, crafting a deeper understanding with his fellow attackers and delighting LA supporters and neutrals alike with some vibrant displays of skill. With Chicharito sidelined, his future uncertain as his contract runs out at season’s end, Puig is effectively now the face of the Galaxy, and it’s a responsibility he embraces.

“Yeah, I think that I need to take this role,” he said. “I like this role. For sure, I need my teammates, because it's a game with a lot of players. It's not like tennis or golf, that it's only one player. And I need my teammates. But like you say, if I need to take this role, I'm so ambitious, and I want to take it.”

Even now, the Galaxy sit just seven points back of the West’s final postseason spot, and Puig is not giving up on a late run into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. And with many of the club’s supporters’ groups having reconciled their differences with management and returned to the stands at Dignity Health Sports Park, Puig feels the boost that provides.

“I always say it's perfect, the city is perfect. The team, it's one of the bigger teams of MLS, they have a lot of history,” he said. “We need good results and that's it. Then the fans, I think that they’ll want to come to Dignity. The last three games, the stadium, it's full, and it's so good for Galaxy, for us and for all the team.

“We need to make a little bit more push the last 10 games of the season, because we have a lot of chances to make the playoffs.”

"A new experience"

He’s also been lifted by the presence of his mother and father, who are visiting from Spain. They were on hand for the LAFC and Philly wins and now they, Riqui and his girlfriend Gemma Iglesias are in D.C. together, taking in as many of the local sights as possible this week. There’s a brief flash of his understated wit as he discusses their trip, a sly callback to the hubbub that erupted last winter after tabloid reports he was “bored” in Los Angeles.

“Maybe we can see the White House and all these types of things,” Puig said. “Maybe if I come alone, it's a little bit boring. But with family, it's more easy to do a lot of these things. And I'm so happy to be with my family here.”

Puig will be on center stage, not just in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game presented by Target at Audi Field, but as a participant in the Skills Challenge presented by AT&T 5G on Tuesday night (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass on AppleTV), a twin bill that underlines just how different his North American adventure is from the decade he spent at Barça. It’s a journey he seems to be enjoying.

“It's a new experience. I'm so happy to be here. Tomorrow I have the Skills Challenge, I never do this. In LaLiga, you can’t do this,” Puig said with another mischievous smile.