Voices: Joseph Lowery

FC Barcelona to LA Galaxy: Why Riqui Puig is MLS’s best summer transfer

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It’s hard to miss Riqui Puig when you’re watching the LA Galaxy. Why? Well, partially because he’s one of the smallest players on the field at just 5-foot-7 and 123 pounds. Also, partially because of his commitment to the aggressively tight shirt tuck, which you just have to sit back and respect.

But mostly, you can’t miss Puig when you watch the Galaxy play because he’s the best player on the field by a country mile in every single game.

Signed from FC Barcelona in August, Puig has been MLS’s signing of the summer. With Puig controlling LA’s midfield (and their opponents’ midfields), it wasn’t a big surprise to see the LA Galaxy book their spot in the Western Conference Semifinals with a 1-0 win over Nashville SC on Saturday.

Let’s look at how Puig has been so good this year ahead of Thursday’s marquee Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal, a postseason El Trafico at LAFC (10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

What makes Puig tick

There were some other strong signings in the summer – I’m looking at you FC Cincinnati and Matt Miazga, as well as Sporting Kansas City and William Agada/Erik Thommy – but Puig’s technical ability in central midfield helps him stand out. His ability to control games with clean touches, quick passing and deceptively quick runs on and off the ball have turned the LA Galaxy into a much more dangerous attacking team than they were at the start of the year.

According to American Soccer Analysis, the Galaxy’s expected goals (xG) went from 1.5 per game before Puig arrived to 1.73 since the midfielder’s debut. Put simply, the 23-year-old Spaniard has elevated LA’s attacking play.

A deeper look into the numbers – and the film – helps us see how he’s helped the Galaxy level up alongside d-mid Gaston Brugman and Mark Delgado.

According to FBref, Puig is in the 91st percentile or higher among midfielders in MLS this year in…

  • expected assists
  • progressive passes
  • progressive carries
  • key passes
  • shot-creating actions
  • passes into the final third
  • passes into the box

That’s not even the entire list of categories Puig is either at or near the top of, but my fingers got tired midway through typing out the list, so I decided to stick to the most notable stats. What do we learn from the fact Puig ranks so highly in that set of stats?

We learn he’s one of the best players in all of MLS at moving the ball from Point A to Point B. He can progress the ball on the dribble or with his passing, and gets the Galaxy into the final third and into the box on a regular basis. Per American Soccer Analysis’s goals-added metric, Puig is third in the league among players with at least 500 minutes this year in passing value per 96 minutes and ninth in dribbling value per 96 minutes. Moving possession higher up the field is a great skill. But that’s not all Puig brings to the Galaxy. He also brings value when it comes to creating chances in advanced areas.

Puig isn’t a traditional No. 10. Instead, he plays more as a dual No. 8 in front of and to the side of a No. 6, which you can see in this rough approximation of the Galaxy’s 4-3-3 formation from their win over Nashville Saturday:

la galaxy shape

Puig may not be a classic No. 10 in terms of his positioning, but he still creates chances at an impressive rate. Per FBref, he’s in the 93rd percentile among No. 8s in xA this year, averaging 0.20 per 90 minutes. While that number doesn’t put him in the same neighborhood as players like FC Cincinnati’s Lucho Acosta (0.38 xA per 90), New England’s Carles Gil (0.34), or the Columbus Crew's Lucas Zelarayan (0.33), it puts Puig above almost every other No. 8 in MLS. Getting that kind of chance creation out of a central midfielder is a rare thing in this league.

I mean, come on, I can count on one hand how many other midfielders in MLS can pull off this line-breaking pass and assist Puig threads to Chicharito in this clip. Maybe it’s the tuck? Is that his secret? It’s got to be.

He can also pop off and score from distance, giving him 3g/5a in 10 regular-season appearances since joining on deadline day.

Puig doesn’t get all that involved defensively, which could be part of the reason why Barcelona were willing to move on from him. But he’s so clearly added both flair and tangible value to Greg Vanney’s team since his first MLS minute back in August. 

If we continue to see Puig help LA dominate midfields across the United States (and Canada), don’t be surprised if Barcelona get back in on the action by using their exclusive buyback option on their former player. Or they could just sit around and wait to collect their 50% sell-on clause on Puig’s eventual move out of Los Angeles.

Comparing Puig to other recent signings

Okay, at this point we understand Puig is good at so many of the things that make soccer teams and players good. But how does he compare to other high-profile summer signings?

The answer: very, very favorably.

According to American Soccer Analysis’s goals-added metric, Puig was third in the entire league in goals added per 96 minutes in the regular season among players with at least 500 minutes. If you include the playoffs, he leads the league in goals added per 96 among players with at least 1,000 minutes in 2022.

Now, I should note one of the players who ranks above Puig in regular season goals added per 96 is LAFC’s Denis Bouanga. Bouanga has created some real danger for Steve Cherundolo’s team since joining from Saint-Etienne at the end of the Secondary Transfer Window. But it’s hard to argue with Puig’s larger sample size and his eight combined goals and assists relative to Bouanga’s one. SKC’s moves to acquire Agada and Thommy, along with Cincinnati’s decision to sign Miazga deserve credit, too. But Puig’s on-field impact and his ceiling put him on another level.

Playoff success is never guaranteed, but the LA Galaxy have a weapon in their arsenal other MLS teams simply don’t: They have the most talented central midfielder MLS has ever seen making plays in possession.