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Riqui Puig’s signing has turned the LA Galaxy into MLS Cup contenders

The potential of the connection between Javier Hernandez and Riqui Puig was clear, even if neither player found the back of the net in the LA Galaxy’s play-off win over Nashville. The two players linked up for a goal that was ultimately disallowed, but the rest of Major League Soccer should heed the warning.

Thursday night will see the Galaxy make the short journey to Banc of California Stadium to face rivals Los Angeles FC in the Western Conference semi-finals. As the Supporters’ Shield winners and number one seeds, LAFC are the favourites, but Puig makes Greg Vanney’s team a dangerous opponent.

Puig has changed the LA Galaxy’s season. They were ninth in the West at the time of the Spanish midfielder’s arrival from Barcelona in August, but had climbed to fourth by the end of the regular season. Puig has registered three goals and two assists in 11 games, but that doesn’t quite illustrate the full impact of his signing.

Since signing Puig, the LA Galaxy’s Expected Goals (xG) per 90 minutes has risen from 1.5 to 1.73. He opens up space for his team almost every time he receives the ball with the 23-year-old capable of dribbling past an opponent or picking a pass. Puig has made the Galaxy a more dynamic side.

It can be difficult to nail down Puig’s specific role in this LA Galaxy team. At times, he picks up the ball and sprays it around from deep like a number six. At other times he drives it forward from the centre circle like a number eight and there are moments when he positions himself on the edge of the opposition box like a number 10.

The Galaxy weren’t the only Los Angeles team to make a big-name signing this summer, with LAFC luring Gareth Bale to the club. But while the Welsh winger has struggled to make much of an impression in MLS, Puig has hit the ground running. He is the driving force behind Vanney’s team as they plot a route through the play-offs.

Of course, the summer addition of Gaston Brugman also strengthened the LA Galaxy with the Uruguayan giving Vanney a player to anchor his midfield. The Galaxy are stronger now than at any other stage of the season, and it’s not solely down to Puig. They are more than just a one-man team. 

Nonetheless, Puig’s influence is clear in every match the LA Galaxy play. It’s no coincidence that Chicharito is in the best form of his Galaxy career to date having scored 11 times in his last 13 games. Vanney already had the finisher and now he has the creator. As long as that supply line continues to flow, the Galaxy have a chance of winning MLS Cup this year.

“I’ve been around the league a long time, since the beginning. We’ve just made arguably one of the most significant signings in the history of the league,” Vanney said at the unveiling of Puig as a Galaxy player in August. “To have a young player of his quality to come from the club he was at where he already had success – to choose the Galaxy, to choose MLS to continue to grow his career – is immensely humbling and a huge recognition for the league.”

Indeed, the impact Puig has made in MLS goes beyond the standard of the performances he has produced in an LA Galaxy shirt. The fact he signed for the Galaxy when he had options in Spain and around Europe made a statement about the growing reputation of MLS as a genuine destination for some of the best young players in the sport.

Another statement would be made if Puig leads the LA Galaxy to MLS Cup glory just a few months after signing for the club. It would prove to clubs what they can achieve with some foresight and ambition in the transfer market. The sight of Puig with silverware in his hands would circulate around world soccer, and perhaps help change perceptions of MLS.

Still, LAFC have the talent and system to beat the LA Galaxy on Thursday. Steve Cherundolo’s team is sure to be the fresher of the two sides after earning a bye for the first round of the play-offs. While extra rest could be a defining factor, the Galaxy’s controlled performance against Nashville suggests they have even more to offer. Puig certainly does.

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