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the biggest summer in MLS history just got bigger

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Not so long ago, Riqui Puig was seen as the face of Barcelona’s future. At a time when the identity of the Catalan club was in question, the young midfielder was the embodiment of what Barca aspired to be again. He ticked all the boxes: diminutive, homegrown and extremely talented. Puig was the next La Masia graduate primed to make it big at Camp Nou, so it’s somewhat surprising to now see the 22-year-old in Major League Soccer.

The LA Galaxy announced the signing of Puig on a three-year deal on Thursday with Barcelona so eager to cut their bloated wage bill that they allowed the midfielder to leave for free. “Riqui is a very technical and well-educated player with incredible experiences for his age,” said Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney. “He will fit seamlessly into our group and style of play.”

Related: Can Toronto FC’s new Italian influx mark a return to MLS glory?

In any other summer, this would be the standout, headline-grabbing transfer involving an MLS club, and it might still be the most noteworthy of this summer’s activities due to Puig’s age and reputation. This, however, has not been an ordinary summer in MLS. There have been numerous landmark deals struck across the league. In fact, this has been the biggest summer in MLS history.

Puig’s move to the LA Galaxy comes just one month after Los Angeles FC completed the signing of Gareth Bale and just three weeks since Toronto FC landed Federico Bernardeschi. None of these players are typical MLS ‘retirement league’ signings. They are far from washed up. They are not in MLS for one final pay check. They had other options closer to home in traditionally stronger leagues, but chose to sign for an MLS club instead. That says something.

Of course, bigger names have made the move to MLS in the past. David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, Frank Lampard and David Villa all played in MLS, but they all did so in the latter stages of their careers. These signings made MLS a destination in the transfer market, but only for those looking for a final destination.

Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne

Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne made their MLS debuts last month in Toronto FC’s 4-0 win over Charlotte FC. Photograph: Chris Young/AP

This is where a dramatic shift has occurred this summer. It’s not just the aging superstars considering MLS as an option, it’s elite performers in their peak too. Puig had offers from Lyon, Monaco and Wolves, according to reports. He also rejected loan offers to leave Barcelona in the January transfer window, but it was the LA Galaxy that turned his head. If the Galaxy can get one or two productive signings of Puig before sending him back to Europe at a profit, that will be considered a great success. This might be the plan for all parties and could form the core of a transfer policy that attracts more peak-age players from Europe in the years to come.

Bale was linked with clubs in the Premier League and had the option to play for his hometown team Cardiff City, but he decided MLS would be the best place for him to prepare for the 2022 World Cup. Bernardeschi is similarly preparing for the World Cup alongside Italy teammate Lorenzo Insigne, who also joined Toronto FC from Serie A this summer.

Related: More with less: why Wayne Rooney may just be the ideal fit for DC United

Cucho Hernandez doesn’t have the name-recognition of the aforementioned players, but at 23 years old he is still at an early stage of his career. Fresh from a season that saw him score five times in 25 Premier League appearances for Watford, it is notable that he too has ended up in MLS this summer, signing for the Columbus Crew in a club-record deal.

It’s not just in the transfers MLS clubs have done that a shift has been witnessed this summer, but in some of the transfers that weren’t done. Jesse Lingard, for example, was reportedly on DC United’s radar not long after Wayne Rooney’s appointment as head coach. Ultimately, Lingard stayed in the Premier League and signed for Nottingham Forest on a contract believed to be worth £180,000-a-week, but the links to DC United carried credibility. It was a possibility.

MLS finds itself at a critical juncture in its development. The league openly aspires to be one of the best in the world and with every signing like that of Puig, Bale and Bernardeschi the needle moves that bit closer to this becoming a reality. The record $2.5bn broadcast deal recently struck with Apple TV was another sign of progress while the 2026 World Cup will be an opportunity to reach more fans.

But MLS might have to release its 28 (soon-to-be 29) member clubs in order to accelerate its growth. Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner publicly questioned how LAFC managed to squeeze Bale and Giorgio Chiellini under the salary cap with the pair signed on TAM (Targeted Allocation Money) deals. While Tanner was fined by MLS for his remarks, and there is no suggestion of any rule-breaking by LAFC, there is a sense that front office figures across the league are having to think creatively to sign the players they want. MLS could make their life easier by raising the salary cap and authorizing clubs to spend more. One could argue that MLS is now holding itself back.

It can be tedious viewing everything that happens in MLS through the prism of the league’s continued growth and its place in the global soccer landscape, but this summer has made such discourse unavoidable. Would Puig have signed for the LA Galaxy even 12 months ago? Would Bale and Bernardeschi have used MLS to prepare for the last World Cup in 2018? Possibly not, but more and more players aren’t looking at what the league was in the past, or even what it could be in the future, but what it is right now.