What happened to Riqui Puig, Barcelona’s wonderkid who’s going to MLS?

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All reports point to Riqui Puig making a surprising switch to the MLS, specifically, the LA Galaxy. A few days short of his 23rd birthday, Puig’s career seems to have gone slightly off the rails since being promoted as La Masia’s next big thing.

Puig’s debut with FC Barcelona came four years ago, but his progress has been closely watched for years before. Viral clips of his skill and comparisons to Andrés Iniesta have gone back even further, into his early teens.

After his first-team debut in the 18-19 season, the expectation was that Puig would soon develop into a great player.

In a preseason match against AC Milan, he was showered with praise by Italian legend Gennaro Gattuso, then the coach of the Rossoneri.

“He’s spectacular. Seeing kids who still have baby faces playing with the ball is something that amazes me. I see them feel the football inside and it’s something like poetry”, he said then.

“I’ve been hearing about Riqui Puig and other kids for a long time. It’s something you can’t cut and paste into another clone.”

Despite this, he was used sparingly by Ernesto Valverde at the beginning of the 19-20 campaign. Fans clamored for more Puig, and were encouraged that after Valverde was fired, his replacement Quique Setién used Puig more often.

Under Setién, Puig played 90 minutes for Barcelona for the first time ever against Atlético Madrid, putting in a good shift that got him plaudits for his passing and energy against a difficult opponent.

Even after Setién’s sacking, Barcelona fans expected that Puig would play a big role in the team’s long-term rebuild.

So it came as something of a shock when Ronald Koeman reportedly told Puig to go on loan because he would lack playing time under him. Puig refused, hoping to fight for his spot.

Over the 20-21 campaign, Puig played only 281 minutes, a little over half of what he played in the previous season. Worse, for a young player, the expectation is that you’d continue to grow, not regress.

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Once again he kept being linked with a loan move, but he always rejected it. At both Barcelona and in Spanish youth teams, he saw himself leapfrogged by other Spanish talents. First it was Pedri, then it was Gavi. Even Nico González seemed to have passed him.

Koeman’s sacking, and Xavi’s appointment, could have been a renaissance for Puig. To some, Koeman was the one who had derailed Puig’s career and failed to appreciate his quality. A man with a passing philosophy such as Xavi’s would surely appreciate Puig, right? Well, not really. All in all, Puig registered 474 minutes across the 21-22 season. That was an improvement, but still short of where he was two seasons prior.

Xavi left Puig out of the team’s preseason US tour, with a clear message: find a new team. Puig finally accepted the request, it seems. But his move to LA is curious. Young talents will not frequently leave Europe to return to it. An established star moving from Europe to LA and back to Europe seems feasible if we are talking about Zlatan Ibrahimović or David Beckham, but Puig is not that. Some players from the Americas go from their home country to the MLS and then Europe, like Miguel Almirón. But youngsters who are already in Europe – at Barcelona no less – who go to the MLS, will they ever return to European football?

The only one that springs to mind is Alex Hunter, the fictional protagonist of some EA Sports FIFA games. Hunter goes from a Premier League club to the LA Galaxy, only to return to a top European team shortly after. But once again, that is fiction.

In the real world, can Puig get his career back on track in the MLS? It’s possible, but it seems unlikely. It’s odd because it’s been said that Puig had offers from several La Liga clubs. And why not? Puig’s development stalled over the last few years, but he should still be good enough to be part of some squads.

That has left some asking whether his goal truly is to continue developing as a footballer, or whether he’s happy with possibly getting paid better in LA. The city has a lot more glamor than other towns that offered to sign him. And he could continue getting attention and stardom in the MLS in a way he probably wouldn’t at La Liga.

Is that unfair? Who knows?

Puig still has skills, but a lot of things people expected would come with age have not progressed. He’s physically small and not very strong. To be clear, Xavi and Lionel Messi have proven you don’t need to be huge to be successful. But they were never weak. And some say he’s not working hard enough for a midfielder. Once again, Xavi was as technically a midfielder as can be, but he worked hard to cover ground from the first minute to the last.

The last thing Puig has not improved that is holding him back is defensive discipline and general awareness of the game. Most youngsters steadily improve on this aspect, but Puig has not done so to the satisfaction of the coaches. That has made them unwilling to give him too much time, as one lapse of concentration can mean conceding a goal.

Will Puig work on his deficiencies in America? Or is this the last time we see him in European leagues?

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