CARSON, Calif. -- The consensus is that Uriel Antuna has enormous potential and could develop into a first-class pro with hard work and experience, and he's finally finding what he needs most -- consistent playing time -- now that he's joined the LA Galaxy.
The 21-year-old Mexican winger, acquired in January on loan from Manchester City, has made a strong impression in his first three games with the Galaxy. He's a speedy, selfless attacker with a superb work ethic, and his performance in LA's last game -- a 3-2 victory over Minnesota United two weekends ago -- offered a nice glimpse of what so impresses those watching him closely.
Playing up top in place of injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antuna ran from start to finish, applying heavy pressure to the Loons' backline and goalkeeper Vito Mannone, forcing turnovers in bad spots and sparking a surprisingly agile LA attack. He won the penalty for the Galaxy's first goal and assisted Sebastian Lletget's 81st-minute strike, which made the difference in the victory.
“God, he was a machine for us,” Chris Pontius, who took Antuna's spot on the flank, said afterward. “Even in the 90th minute, he's going and pressuring the goalkeeper. ... Just a guy that's showing up in spots where we needed him to, running in the channels. He was unbelievable.”
It's just one game, with many more to go, notes Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese, who from his previous role in charge of Mexico's national teams, was familiar with Antuna.
“He's a kid who's very humble, who works hard and really has a lot going for him,” the Dutchman told MLSsoccer.com as he watched LA's training session Thursday morning at Dignity Health Sports Park. “But he's young, he's only 21 years old. Let's take it easy, step by step. It's a good opportunity to have here and see what he does, and we'll see in the course of the year how it pans out. I don't want to put any pressure on him whatsoever.”
Antuna's having a blast after seeing scant first-team time with Santos Laguna, his hometown club, and during an 18-month loan to Dutch club FC Groningen right after he signed two summers ago with Manchester City. He's played all but 13 minutes in LA's first three games and figures to feature, likely on the wing with Ibrahimovic back on the field, in Sunday evening's home clash with the Portland Timbers (9 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).
“I feel great, and adding games and adding minutes, it's helping me grow,” Antuna said in Spanish after Thursday's session. “I think the most important thing at the end of the day is continuing to help the team. I feel like my minutes and helping the team is the end goal.”
Antuna developed in Santos' system, saw regular time with Mexico's youth national teams, and had made two first-team appearances for his hometown club before Manchester City swooped in to sign him after he played a key role in Mexico's run to the quarterfinals two years ago at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea. It was most unexpected.
“I had a tryout set with them, but then the U-20 World Cup came along, so the tryout didn't happen,” he said. “Then the news came that they signed me, and I couldn't believe it. It was something I was fighting for and working for, and it was a great surprise.”
Manchester City sent him to northern Holland on a two-year loan deal, but he saw more time with FC Groningen's U-21 side than with the first team. It took time for him to feel comfortable and he struggled to keep his confidence strong.
“The adapting process was difficult,” said Antuna, who was called up to Mexico's full national team for two end-of-year friendlies in 2017 but hasn't yet been capped. “I didn't speak the language, the food, the climate, but as time goes on, you start getting used to those things. And then with the minutes, you can lose confidence, but you keep working hard, and when you don't play, it gets to you. But I did learn a lot in my time there. It was hard, but I overcame it, and I felt I came out a better person as well.”
Groningen canceled the loan deal with a half-year still to go, which opened the door to come to the Galaxy.
“The team in Holland is not an easy setup,” te Kloese said. “Because it's a team where there's high expectations. They used to be, like, in the top 10 teams [in the Eredivisie], and in the last few years they've struggled, and I think for a young player from such an opposite culture, maybe [he wasn't prepared] for the experience, and it was probably a difficult year for him.
“I think he's a kid who has high potential. The one thing I was told, even though it was a difficult year for him with everything -- culture-wise, the weather, and adapting in Holland -- he always worked hard. I think that's encouraging, that his mentality never went down.”
Santos expressed interest in bringing him back on loan, but Antuna thought the Galaxy would be better for his development.
“The VP called me to tell me the doors were open for me at Santos, but I decided to come to the Galaxy because of the quality of players that the club has, players like Jonathan [Dos Santos], like Sebastian, like Gio [Dos Santos] when he was here, like Juninho, like Ibra,” he said. “I thought it would help my growth to be with such world-class players.”
Playing alongside Ibrahimovic is a particular treat.
“As a kid, I used to watch him play, and now I'm putting in crosses for him,” Antuna said. “It's a dream come true.”
He's in constant contact with Manchester City and says the club sends him videos of “ 'oh, you did this very well' or 'this is something you can work on.' I think they do have a good project for me.”
Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said he believes Antuna can have an impact with the club this year.
“I think he can do a lot of things playing wide or playing up front,” Schelotto said. “He told me felt really good after the game with Minnesota, so I think he's waiting for a big year. ... He went to City and Holland, didn't play too much, but he's playing now, and I think he's taking the possibility to play and to find out who he is.
“I think he's getting better [with the Galaxy]. When you have the possibility to play, play, play, you're repeating [what you do] and getting better. Maybe he lost something [with Groningen] because he didn't play too much, but he's playing now, and I hope he keeps playing.”
Antuna says his aim is to “play the most minutes possible and help the team with assists, with goals.” If he does well, LA might want him to stick around.
The Galaxy don't have an option to purchase Antuna, te Kloese said, but his signing was seen in England as more an investment than a move for Manchester City's future. What happens next isn't certain.
“We'll have to see,” te Kloese said. “I think it goes both ways. For us, to take a look at him, where he stands and what he can actually bring to the club and to the team. And for him, also, to see if this is a good situation. If now in the course of the year, it's positive for both sides, I think we'll discuss any further action.
“At the moment, we're happy where it goes. He should take advantage of the opportunity that he gets a lot of playing time and responsibility from the coach. He seems to be well-liked by our fans, because of his workrate and his quickness, so hopefully he can continue that. It's still early to make a judgment and still a long way to go.”