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What signing Riqui Puig and Federico Bernardeschi means for MLS

To Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports and Soccer Writer

when i was 27 Sebastian Giovinco left the local club Juventus for major league soccerof Toronto FC In 2015, it was considered a game changer.

Never before had a bona fide European star been in his prime — ‘Atomic Ant’ had 21 caps with the Italian national team when he moved from Serie A to TFC — leaving the continent for the United States and played on Canada’s top circuits.

Up until that point in its history, MLS had a somewhat unfair reputation as a place where aging European stars could play a few extra years and make millions before calling it a career. The vast majority of foreign players in the league were actually in their 20s, but the sight of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard scurrying around the MLS field at 38 didn’t change this perception. did.

Giovinco was different. The Turin native was an instant hit, earning league MVP honors that season, and two years later he helped lead the team’s offense to win the MLS Cup.

Certainly other European blue chippers will hope to emulate Giovinco’s success and move to MLS.

Seven years later, it’s actually happening. On Thursday, the LA Galaxy announced the signing of the 22-year-old Barcelona midfielder Riki his Puig.

Puig’s surprise arrival follows last month when 28-year-old Italian national team player Federico Bernardeschi followed Giovinco’s path to move from Juventus to Toronto. The subtext is clear: if this summer is any indication, MLS is slowly but surely emerging as a legitimate option for players who aren’t short of options at the highest level.

No MLS yet. Puig was only available on the Galaxy as he was not included in Barca’s Xavi plans. Like Bernardeschi, who Juve did not re-sign, Puig did not need a transfer fee.

Yet it still says something that both players found MLS attractive enough to sign the dotted line.Leaving Europe can be costly. The move to Toronto effectively ended Giovinco’s international career.

As such, most of the familiar names that have landed in the MLS this season are still older breeds, with the star’s heyday likely behind them. . LAFC’s Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini are 33 and he is 37 respectively. Houston Dynamo midfielder Hector Herrera is 32 years old after moving from Atletico Madrid. Chicago Fire forward Xherdan Shaqiri is 30 years old.

League legends such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Kaka and David Villa were also in their early 30s when they made their North American debuts.

With more investment pouring into MLS for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will be co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, MLS could become a bigger draw for young European-based stars.

It has already become a destination for South America’s top young talent. The most notable example is Paraguayan winger Miguel Almiron, who helped Atlanta win the title before being sold to Premier League side Newcastle for around $30 million in 2019. Five Stripes made him a sizable profit for Almiron — Atlanta paid him just $8 million three years before him — though they still haven’t found a good replacement. Hmm.

Can Puig make a similar impact? He scored just two goals and three assists in 57 appearances for Barcelona, ​​most of them off the bench. But he also showed flashes of brilliance. Given his pedigree, he is expected to be one of the best attackers in MLS once he settles into his new environment. (The Los Angeles Times has already called Puig the “savior” of the galaxy.)

Puig is still young and could return to Europe to reach his full potential at top level. His contract with the five-time MLS champion runs until 2025 but includes a clause giving Barcelona the first dib to bring him back. Barça will receive half of the transfer fee.

Puig isn’t the first former Galaxy player to return to the biggest stage after a goal-filled sojourn in Southern California. Nearly three years after leaving MLS, 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic recently signed a one-year contract extension with Italian champions AC Milan.

Many eyes on both sides of the Atlantic will be watching closely to see how Puig performs in the MLS. Even with his success, it’s hard to imagine the next young European star falling far behind.

One of North America’s leading football journalists, Doug McIntyre has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. He was a staff writer at ESPN and Yahoo Sports before joining FOX Sports in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @ByDoug McIntyre.

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