Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman rejuvenated the Galaxy

It was June, Galaxy coach Greg Vanney recalled, a month in which his team hadn’t won a game, when Jovan Kirovski, the team’s technical director, called on the phone.

“Hey, we might have a chance to get Riqui Puig. What do you think?” Vanney says Kirovski asked.

It was a rhetorical question. The Galaxy midfield, a toxic mix of injuries and inconsistency, weighed on the team. Puig, who made his Barcelona debut as a teenager, could remedy that.

“I was really surprised,” Vanney said. “And of course that always comes with, ‘Oh, I don’t know if that’s a reality or not.’ “

Less than two months later, it became a reality when Puig made his MLS debut. A team that didn’t win in June has become a team that couldn’t lose, giving up only one of its last 11 games to qualify for the playoffs, where it will face Nashville SC on Saturday in the first match. Galaxy’s post-season at home since 2016.

None of this happens without Puig and midfielder Gastón Brugman, who joined the Galaxy from Spanish club Oviedo a month earlier.

“Riqui, in January, it was bad luck,” Kirovski said. “Then things changed with their financial situation at Barcelona, ​​a new coach. Then he came to the table.

“And when he came to the table, Greg was everywhere. Because he fits the profile. It fits the way Greg wants to play.

The additions might have saved more than the Galaxy season.

A few hours before Vanney sent Puig (pronounced poo) on the ground for the first time, a plane circled Dignity Health Sports Park towing a banner calling for the dismissal of Kirovski and Galaxy President Chris Klein. It was a low point in a 5½ season spiral in which the most successful side in MLS history lost more games than they won and played the playoffs only once.

Yet at the same time that Kirovski and Klein were being blamed for the team’s demise, they were plotting its return. The first addition was Brugman, a versatile defensive midfielder and playmaker that Vanney had been chasing for almost two years.

Kirovski landed him on a mid-summer transfer from Italian second division side Parma, signing Brugman, 30, to a 3½-year deal using Targeted Allocation (TAM). It was only an appetizer as less than a month later, the Galaxy acquired Puig, 23, a graduate of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, on a free transfer. He also signed a 3.5-year TAM contract, which means his annual salary, like Brugman’s, cannot exceed $1.612 million.

Top Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman celebrate during a game against the Colorado Rapids at Dignity Health Sports Park in September.

(Jon Lorentz/LA Galaxy)

To make room for Puig, the Galaxy traded Rayan Raveloson to French club Auxerre for $1.78m. Within a month, Kirovski secured two game-changing midfielders and helped fund the deals by selling a player he had secured a year earlier for free.

“Timing was everything,” Vanney said. “We were able to get two key things and they helped invigorate our group and provide just the right balance, stability and quality.”

Brugman plugged a gaping hole in defensive midfield. Unable to acquire a true No. 6 over the winter, the Galaxy tried pairing Raveloson and Mark Delgado down the middle, but that combination never clicked. When Brugman arrived, he proved to be the defensive anchor the team lacked.

Puig then responded to the need for a line-splitting playmaker, averaging over 75 passes every 90 minutes and completing 92% of them; many have been works of art. His success as the team’s quarterback is a big reason why eight of team-leading Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s 18 goals have followed Puig’s arrival.

These numbers only measure part of the magic he brought. Puig’s infectious enthusiasm, energy, poise and joy on the pitch have changed the way the Galaxy have played this season. His will to win changed the length of their game.

When a missed penalty left the Galaxy facing defeat in Nashville last month, Puig went to the spot himself when a second penalty was awarded deep in stoppage time and converted the kick kick to even the score.

This point turned out to be the one that gave the Galaxy (14-12-8) a date for the home playoffs.

So if Puig is disappointed with the end of his nine years in Barcelona’s program, he hasn’t shown it. In fact, his early commitment to MLS, Vanney said, makes him “one of the most important signings” in league history.

“You have to make decisions.” said Puig in Spanish. “I am in one of the best cities in the world, in a club that is also very well known. It is true that I come from the best club in the world, but I am very happy to be here.

“I’m 11,000 miles from home and the truth is that right now,” he said, flashing a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial, “I have no intention of ‘go to Europe’.

His parents made the long trip Friday to see their son compete in the MLS playoffs, so read nothing about him still living in a hotel two months after arriving in Southern California.

“I have trouble finding an apartment or a house,” he says.

But he has already found a home.