By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
When 27-year-old Sebastian Giovinco left his hometown club Juventus for Major League Soccer‘s Toronto FC in 2015, it was seen as a game-changer.
Never before had a bona fide European star in his prime — the “Atomic Ant” had 21 caps for Italy’s national team when he swapped Serie A for TFC — left the continent to play in the top circuit in the United States and Canada.
To 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 earn a few extra million before calling it a career. While the overwhelming majority of the league’s foreign players actually were 20-somethings, the sight of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard running around MLS fields as 38-year-olds did nothing to change this perception.
Giovinco was different. The Turin native was an instant hit, winning league MVP honors that season and anchoring the attack for a team that would go on to hoist MLS Cup two years later.
Surely other European blue chippers would look 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 22-year-old Barcelona midfielder Riqui Puig.
Puig’s shocking arrival comes on the heels of another last month, when 28-year-old Italian national teamer Federico Bernardeschi followed Giovinco’s path and swapped Juve for Toronto. The subtext is clear: If this summer is any indication, MLS is slowly but surely emerging as a legitimate option for players who still have plenty left to give and no shortage of alternatives at the very highest level.
MLS isn’t there yet. Puig was only available to the Galaxy because he’s not in Barça coach Xavi’s plans. Like Bernardeschi, who wasn’t re-signed by Juve, Puig didn’t require a transfer fee.
It still says something, though, that both players found MLS attractive enough to sign on the dotted line. Leaving Europe can come with costs; moving to Toronto effectively ended Giovinco’s international career.
That’s why most of the household names that landed in MLS this season are still of the older variety, stars whose best years are probably behind them. Lorenzo Insigne, Bernardeschi’s teammate with both the Azzurri and the Reds, is 31. LAFC’s Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini are 33 and 37, respectively. Houston Dynamo midfielder Hector Herrera, who was signed from Atletico Madrid, is 32. Chicago Fire forward Xherdan Shaqiri is 30.
League legends like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Kaka and David Villa were all also in their early 30s when they made their North American debuts.
As more investment pours into MLS ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico, MLS could become a bigger draw for younger European-based stars.
It’s already become a destination for some of South America’s top young talent. Paraguayan winger Miguel Almiron, who helped Atlanta win a title before being sold to Premier League Newcastle for around $30 million in 2019, is the most notable example. The Five Stripes turned a tidy profit on Almiron — Atlanta paid just $8 million for him three years earlier — although they still haven’t found a replacement as good.
Can Puig make a similar impact? He managed just two goals and three assists in 57 appearances for Barcelona, most of them off the bench. But he has also shown flashes of brilliance. Given his pedigree, he’ll be expected to be among the best attackers in MLS once he settles into his new environment. (The Los Angeles Times is already referring to Puig as the Galaxy’s “savior.”)
Puig is also young enough that he can still return to Europe and realize his full potential at the top level. While his contract with the five-time MLS champs runs through 2025, it contains a clause that gives Barcelona first dibs to bring him back. Barça would receive half of any transfer fee should another club come calling for Puig’s services.
Puig wouldn’t be the first former Galaxy player to return to the biggest stage after a goal-filled sojourn in Southern California; almost three years after leaving MLS, 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic recently inked a one-year extension with Italian champ AC Milan.
Plenty of eyes on both sides of the Atlantic will be watching closely to see how Puig fares in MLS. Should he succeed, it’s hard to imagine the next young European star being far behind.
One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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