It was June, Galaxy coach Greg Vanney remembers, a month in which his team didn’t win a game, when Jovan Kirovski, the team’s technical director, phoned.
“Hey, we might have a chance to get Riqui Puig. What do you think?” Vanney says Kirovski asked.
It was a rhetorical question. The Galaxy’s midfield, a toxic mix of injuries and inconsistency, was weighing the team down. Puig, who made his debut with Barcelona as a teenager, could remedy that.
“I was really surprised,” Vanney said. “And of course it always come with, ‘Oh I don’t know if it’s a reality or not.’ “
Less than two months later, it became a reality when Puig made his MLS debut. A team that didn’t win in June became one that couldn’t lose, dropping only one of its final 11 games to earn its way into the playoffs, where it will face Nashville SC on Saturday in the Galaxy’s first postseason game at home since 2016.
None of that happens without Puig and midfielder Gastón Brugman, who joined the Galaxy from Spanish club Oviedo a month earlier.
“Riqui, in January, it was not a chance,” Kirovski said. “Then things changed with their financial situation at Barcelona, a new coach. Then it came to the table.
“And when it came to the table, Greg was all over it. Because he fits the profile. It fits the way Greg wants to play.”
The additions might have saved more than the Galaxy’s season.
A couple of hours before Vanney sent Puig (pronounced pootch) onto the field for the first time, a plane circled Dignity Health Sports Park towing a banner demanding Kirovski and Galaxy president Chris Klein be fired. It was a low point in a 5½-season spiral in which the team, the most successful in MLS history, lost more games than it won and made the playoffs only once.
Yet at the same time Kirovski and Klein were being blamed for the team’s demise, they were plotting its comeback. The first addition was Brugman, a versatile, playmaking defensive midfielder whom Vanney had been pursuing for nearly two years.
Kirovski landed him on a midsummer transfer from second-division Italian side Parma, signing Brugman, 30, to 3 ½-year contract using targeted allocation money (TAM). That was just the appetizer because less than a month later the Galaxy acquired Puig, 23, a graduate of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, on a free transfer. He also signed a 3 ½-year TAM deal, meaning his annual salary, like that of Brugman, cannot top $1.612 million.
To make room for Puig, the Galaxy transferred Rayan Raveloson to French club Auxerre for $1.78 million. In the span of a month, Kirovski obtained two game-changing midfielders and helped finance the deals by selling a player he had obtained a year earlier for free.
“Timing was everything,” Vanney said. “We were able to get two key parts and they’ve helped to kind of reinvigorate our group and just provide balance and stability and quality.”
Brugman plugged a gaping hole at defensive midfielder. Unable to acquire a true No. 6 over the winter, the Galaxy tried pairing Raveloson and Mark Delgado in the middle, but that combination never clicked. When Brugman arrived, he proved to be the defensive anchor the team was missing.
Puig then filled the need for a line-splitting playmaker, averaging more than 75 passes every 90 minutes and completing 92% of them; many have been works of art. His success quarterbacking the team’s offense is a big reason why eight of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s team-leading 18 goals have followed Puig’s arrival.
Those numbers measure only part of the magic he has brought. Puig’s infectious enthusiasm, energy, poise and joy on the field changed the way the Galaxy played this season. His will to win has changed how long they’ll play.
When a missed penalty kick left the Galaxy looking at a loss in Nashville last month, Puig marched to the spot himself when a second penalty was awarded deep in stoppage time and converted the kick to tie the score.
That point proved to be the one that gave the Galaxy (14-12-8) a home playoff date.
So if Puig harbors any disappointment over how his nine years in the Barcelona program ended, he hasn’t shown it. In fact, his early commitment to MLS, Vanney said, makes him “one of the most significant signings” in league history.
“You have to make decisions.” Puig said in Spanish. “I’m in one of the best cities in the world, in a club that is also well known. It is true that I came from the best club in the world, but I am very happy to be here.”
“I’m 11,000 kilometers from home and truth is, at the moment,” he said, flashing a smile that belongs in a toothpaste commercial, “I don’t plan to go to Europe.”
His parents made that long trip Friday to see their son compete in the MLS playoffs, so don’t read anything into the fact he’s still living in a hotel two months after arriving in Southern California.
“I’m having a hard time finding an apartment or a house,” he said.
But he’s already found a home.