At the La Quinta Resort on the floor of Coachella Valley, with a view of the Santa Rosa Mountains, LA Galaxy found its preseason paradise.
The resort – complete with nine golf courses, including one partly designed by legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus – played home to four MLS teams during the Coachella Valley Invitational. The Galaxy arranged the preseason tournament at the Empire Polo Club in nearby Indio, where 12 clubs wrapped up their final preparations for the 2023 season.
Perhaps no player enjoyed the setting more than the Galaxy’s Riqui Puig, a highly-touted European midfielder entering his prime years with an MLS team.
The 23-year-old has been in the news recently, with reports from Spain suggesting he has yet to settle in Los Angeles. But as an avid golf and tennis player, there were few better places to spend his free time than on PGA quality courses and within a few miles of Indian Wells, regarded among the most prestigious tennis tournaments outside of the four Grand Slams.
As he bounced into the lobby of the La Quinta, with a stream of PSG vs. Bayern Munich on his phone and a beaming smile on his face, The Athletic prompted the Catalan-born Spaniard to do his first interview in English.
“Why not?” he replied. Puig is a man refreshed.
Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How has your first MLS preseason been?
It’s different. In Spain, you have more days off in the season, but here it’s very compact. We finish in December for the winter break (in Spain) and then we have one month of holidays – which is very good. But here, you’re alone for 10 months without family and friends. It’s different, but it’s good. I like it.
I stayed for the season in Los Angeles but went home for the holidays in December. After losing in the playoffs, I had two months of holiday with my friends and girlfriend. We went to Punta Cana and New York. In Spain, we celebrate Dia Los Reyes (Three Kings Day) in January, and we had a party for that and for Christmas.
Now that I’m back, I’m excited to stay here all year! I preferred staying at home for the offseason and not going to places like Disneyland; that way, I could be in Barcelona with my family, girlfriend and friends. Then I find it easier to focus on spending the year here living alone. When you come alone to Los Angeles, people are very welcoming and friendly. There are many groups where you can meet up with other people, and there is a lot of business here.
How does the physical distance from home feel?
It’s not like living in London, where it’s just a two-hour plane journey to Spain. Here, the travel is maybe two days. If we have six days off, I can’t go to Spain because for two days I am travelling. But, on the other hand, it’s perfect because if your friends or girlfriend comes, they will stay for more than a week. Los Angeles is great to stay for two or three weeks – you can do a lot of things.
Reflecting on last year, what did you make of your first season in MLS? And how does the quality of soccer compare to Europe?
I really enjoyed it. I settled in well because I’d say 80% of my teammates speak Spanish, so it was very easy for me. I can speak English well, but when I can speak my language to my teammates, it makes it easier to explain my ideas. With (Galaxy head coach) Greg (Vanney), I have a lot of confidence. I’m really happy to be here – Los Angeles is perfect. I love the beaches; it never rains, and it’s always sunny. It’s like Barcelona except that the city is so big and you always need to take a car. Everything is so far, but it’s nice to be here.
I came from La Liga, one of the best leagues in Europe, and played in the Champions League. The technical level here is not the same, but it is much more physical. I needed to improve my strength because other players always go shoulder-to-shoulder, which was difficult for me to begin with. In Spain, and for FC Barcelona, it’s all about winning possession. In the 90 minutes, we’d maybe have 80 minutes of the ball. Here, it’s about box-to-box, and it’s different, though we like to try and control the game. There is definitely quality here, but it’s a different style.
When I arrived, I saw the other players’ physique, which was different from the players in La Liga. I did 11 kilometrers (roughly 7 miles) in the first match. At Barcelona, it was 8, 9 or maybe 10. I realised quickly I needed to improve my physique to perform at the level I wanted to be at, but it was a challenge because I never did gym work in Barcelona. I was young, and, when I trained with the first team, it was always with the ball. We’d never go to the gym after training. Here, I need to do that to become a top player.
Do you think that focus in the gym will help your future goals?
Yeah, I think so. I need to improve this. When you look at other big leagues, like the Premier League, for example, players do a lot of work in the gym after training. In Spain, we train from the first minute with the ball on the pitch, and, when you finish training, you go home. Learning another side is good for me to complement my technical quality.
You went to an LA Lakers game with Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez. How was it, and how is your relationship with him?
We were very lucky to be able to go to that game. I had never seen an NBA game in my life, and it was really, really nice. The atmosphere was great. I think people here like basketball more than soccer because they say soccer, not football! But I understand because people here are very interested in American sports. When I went to the Crypto.com Arena and felt the atmosphere, I understood soccer isn’t the biggest sport here. There is still lots of room to grow. There were a lot of celebrities, and maybe that’s something we need to improve in soccer.
Chicharito and I have a very good relationship. Like Gaston (Brugman) and Martin Caceres, he speaks Spanish. That’s better for me because I can explain better what works or if I have a problem. It’s easier to explain to them than to another player who only speaks English. Chicha played in Europe, and he’s very knowledgeable about (soccer). He played for some of the biggest clubs in the world, like Real Madrid and Manchester United. He’s a really good player, and I’m really proud and happy to play with him.
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What have you learned from Chicharito?
His concentration. There are two Chicharitos: When he needs to train, he’s really concentrated, but if we’re having lunch, we’re happy and making jokes. As soon as he steps on the field, he realizes that it’s his job and it’s all about winning. Outside the field, he’s a great person with a big heart. He’s a really, really nice person.
Speaking of another teammate who has played at the top levels in Europe, how can you help to get Douglas Costa back to the level he showed in Europe?
If Douglas is to play well, we, his teammates, must help him. If Douglas sees that we are a team, we will all progress in one direction. In our last game of the season, Douglas played really well. We all saw the desire to play well, and I’ve seen it so far in the preseason. He wants to win MLS.
What are LA Galaxy’s aspirations for the season?
I’m a player that always wants to win trophies. That’s what I want to do, but there are a lot of games in the regular season, and we need to improve a lot. We have many very young and talented players on the team, but I think we aspire to win MLS.
We didn’t sign many new players, and we have a similar team to what we had last year. It’s good for the team because we know all our teammates well, which has helped us quickly progress toward the level we want to be in the preseason. If we don’t start well, maybe there are a lot of problems inside the locker room, or perhaps you don’t make jokes anymore. It’s different if the results are good, but the preseason has been a good start to get us on track to win MLS.
With big performances for the Galaxy may come international recognition. Do you think about playing for the Spanish national team?
The highest aspiration for a player is to play for the national team. I want to play for Spain. I am a big Spain person. It’s a difficult national team to play for, but I want to play for them. I want to play at the World Cup. It’s a dream.
Spain started so well at the World Cup but struggled after the second game. They lost to Morocco, but they had a lot of chances, and in (soccer), you need to score goals. You can’t win a match without scoring goals. We didn’t have the luck, but other national teams are great, and only one can win. Leo (Messi) deserved it, and I am really happy for him because I know how much it means to him and Argentina.
It must be great to see Gavi, Pedri, Sergio Busquets and all of your former Barcelona teammates playing for Spain. Now Busquets has retired, do you aspire to break into the midfield?
Yes, I played with Gavi for the youth teams and Pedri and Busi under (former Barcelona coach Ronald) Koeman and Xavi. Pedri is an excellent player, and we see he’s started to score goals and add that to his game, too. I’m really happy for him because he’s such a nice person. I think he’s already at the top – he’s very consistent. We have a strong midfield.
And what about the midfield at the Galaxy? Have you settled in well?
We have a really good midfield – it’s the team’s heart, and it’s important to what we’re trying to achieve. If we don’t have a good midfield, the team won’t play well because possession is important to how we play. MLS is box-to-box, but we can control the game better if we have the ball. It’s important in MLS to ensure we have control.
The season starts with a rivalry game against LAFC at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 9:30 p.m. ET. How much are you looking forward to that?
I’m really excited. My parents, girlfriend and friends are coming from Barcelona for this game, and I’m excited to play in front of them. We lost the last game we played against LAFC, but we played very well, and we had a lot of chances to win. Now we have a second chance. It’s about getting revenge – we need to win and start the season well.
(Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)