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Puig joins LA Galaxy from Barcelona, but rival MLS execs are skeptical of the deal

The MLS secondary transfer window closed in very much in the same way that it started: With a high-profile player arriving in Los Angeles amidst questions of how he would fit on his new club’s salary budget.

A little more than a month after LAFC acquired Gareth Bale, the LA Galaxy on Thursday signed Spanish midfielder Riqui Puig, who will turn 23 next week, through the 2025 season on a free transfer from FC Barcelona. Like Bale, was signed to a targeted allocation money (TAM) contract. Also like Bale, that fact came as a bit of a surprise.

According to various reports, Puig made $4 million last season with Barcelona, which is in the middle of a bizarre financial crisis and needs to offload players in order to register new signings. He had one guaranteed year remaining on his contract with the club, but had been told this summer by head coach Xavi that he wasn’t in his plans for the 2022-23 season. If Puig, who had been with Barça since age 14, wanted to play, he needed to find a new team.

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He got that with the Galaxy, but he’s also taking a significant pay cut. Budget costs — salary plus agent fees, achievable bonuses and other payments — for TAM players are capped at $1.6125 million in 2022. That number will increase in each of the next few years, but only marginally.

Designated players (DPs) do not have any such caps on their compensation. Each team only gets three of those, however, and the Galaxy already have the maximum amount on their books in Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who is out of contract after this season, Kevin Cabral and Douglas Costa. Bale, whose contract is only guaranteed for 12 months, has an option in his deal that, if triggered by LAFC, would make him a DP next summer. There is no such mechanism in Puig’s contract with the Galaxy. Nor does it include raises that would take his average annual salary over the DP threshold — if it did, the club would not be able to count him as a TAM player for any portion of his deal.

The upshot: Over the life of his three-and-a-half year deal, Puig will not be able to be paid more than $5.88 million in total by LA.

Several GMs at other MLS clubs who were granted anonymity to avoid running afoul of the league questioned the Puig deal in conversations with The Athletic on Thursday. None went as far as Philadelphia sporting director Ernst Tanner did last month in on-the-record comments to Kicker about the Bale deal that MLS later fined him for, but all wondered if Puig is a legitimate TAM player. All were at a bit of a loss as to why a young talent with 57 appearances for one of the top teams in the world would take a large pay cut to come to MLS. One GM was so suspicious that they, in the MLS equivalent of an elementary schooler threatening to tattle, pledged to have the owner of their club look into the transaction. None of the GMs had any evidence that anything untoward is going on.

As detailed in the aftermath of the Bale acquisition, MLS vets all new signings to ensure that they are compliant with the league’s roster rules. Teams are also required to submit written certification to the league vouching that all compensation paid to an individual player is accounted for in their official MLS contract. Those same procedures were no doubt followed as part of the Puig transaction, which the Galaxy made room for in part by selling midfielder Rayan Raveloson to French Ligue 1 club AJ Auxerre earlier on Thursday.

There are plenty of reasonable scenarios in which Puig may have come to LA on a TAM contract. We don’t know if he had any offers in Europe that would’ve paid him more than what he’s getting from the Galaxy, for one thing. We also don’t know if Barcelona bought out a portion of his contract to help make him whole for the next 12 months. We do know that Los Angeles is an attractive place to live for players, including those, like Puig, who are on the front-end of their careers.

But the fact that opposing executives are wondering about the legality of a second high-profile signing in the space of a little more than a month is illustrative of a major problem facing MLS. It’s been a little bit more than a year since it emerged that Inter Miami hid payments to Blaise Matuidi and four other players on their 2020 roster. Matuidi and defender Andres Reyes were both announced as TAM signings, but both should’ve counted as DPs. That scandal, which Miami was severely sanctioned for, has created growing feelings of distrust for some club executives, who, rightly or wrongly, continue to be suspicious about deals like those for Bale and Puig. Barring a substantial rule change, it seems like there’s little MLS will be able to do to combat those feelings.

There is, of course, a lot more to discuss about this signing. Like any player schooled at La Masia, Puig is incredibly technical and skilled in possession. He never racked up serious numbers at Barca, but he should boost the attacking output that LA has gotten from central midfield this year. Puig is not, however, much of a ball-winner. By acquiring him and selling Raveloson, the Galaxy are adding talent on the ball and sacrificing some defensive ability and athleticism. LA did recently sign veteran Uruguayan holding midfielder Gaston Brugman, who played 33 games last season while on loan from Italian club Parma to Spanish second-division side Real Oviedo. Unless head coach Greg Vanney switches to a two-forward setup with Chicharito and emerging talent Dejan Joveljic, look for him to play alongside Mark Delgado and behind Puig in a 4-2-3-1 as LA looks to fight their way into the postseason.

Puig’s addition could also impact how MLS is viewed globally. It’s unheard of for a player who was recently considered one of the brightest young talents at a club like Barcelona to come to MLS; players who leave Barca at his age often wind up at mid-size clubs in other big European leagues. If he can successfully rehab his career with the Galaxy, get sold back to Europe (Barcelona reportedly holds a buy-back clause and maintained a sell-on percentage) and become a contributor for a competitive squad, it could help improve how MLS is perceived by players and executives around the world. That perception has significant transfer market implications for MLS, both in terms of what kinds of players the league can attract and how much they can sell them for.

(Photo: Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports)

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