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The most shocking part of Cruz Azul's swoop for three MLS players last week was the fact that the highly regarded LA Galaxy prospect was one of them.

Players leaving Major League Soccer in the winter is an annual rite of passage, but there was something very unfamiliar and uneasy about the biggest transaction of the weekend involving MLS players going to a new league.

When reports first hit linking Jose Villarreal, Michael Farfan and Rafael Baca to a move to Cruz Azul, the initial reaction was one of disbelief. We hadn’t seen a Mexican team raid MLS for talent to this degree before, but the bigger reaction had to do with one name in particular: Villarreal, who had been considered one of the best young prospects in MLS and a star of the U.S. Under-20 national team.

At first blush, it didn’t make much sense why the Los Angeles Galaxy would be sending Villarreal to Mexico, even if the deal is a loan with an option to buy. A closer look at Villareal’s situation at the Galaxy made it a little easier to figure out why such a promising prospect was being be sent away before he had even established himself in MLS.

Villarreal played a mere 15 minutes in the Galaxy’s playoff series loss to Real Salt Lake, a series that saw the Galaxy muster just one goal in 210 minutes. That the 20-year-old attacker played so little wasn’t a complete shock considering his minutes in the second half of the 2013 season: He managed just three starts after July, and two of those came during international fixture windows when Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane were on national team duty.

During that same three-month span to close out the regular season, Villarreal failed to play a minute in five matches and saw modest minutes in four others. Not exactly the kind of minutes worthy of a player considered by some as one of the most talented young prospects in MLS.

What had to become clear to the Galaxy is that Villarreal simply didn’t look like a player who was close to being a regular starter. Not in 2013, and probably not in 2014. The Galaxy had to agree with this sentiment because that is the only way the team could have realistically justified sending him on a yearlong loan in a World Cup year, when Donovan is a good bet to miss several matches because of national team duty.

In short, as much promise as Villarreal showed in brilliant flashes over the past two seasons, what he hadn’t shown was the kind of maturation that could lead Bruce Arena to see him as a real starting option anytime soon.

Then there is the question of the Galaxy’s salary cap situation. The team has three designated players on the books in 2014, with no allocation money coming in. The Galaxy were already forced to unload longtime right back Sean Franklin because of salary cap considerations, so any loan fee secured for Villarreal should only help provide the Galaxy with some resources to improve the rest of the roster.

Before you go ripping the move as an example of the Galaxy eschewing youth in favor of veterans and high-priced older players, keep in mind that the team still boasts young forwards Gyasi Zardes and Jack McBean, and U.S. Under-20 fullback Oscar Sorto just might compete for the starting right back job in 2014. That’s to say nothing of the homegrown player prospects in the Galaxy pipeline, such as highly regarded midfielder Raul Mendiola.

No, Villarreal’s departure was more about him not developing quickly enough to justify the Galaxy passing on a chance to move him and help improve the Galaxy immediately. Does that mean there isn’t some gamble involved in such a move? There certainly is. Villarreal could theoretically go to Mexico, find success and never return to the Galaxy.

How realistic is that scenario? It’s possible, and with sources telling Goal USA that the purchase option on Villarreal’s loan deal is a modest $1 million, it isn’t tough to see Cruz Azul pulling the trigger on a buy even if Villarreal doesn’t see much playing time. That being said, Cruz Azul has the deep pockets to go after big-ticket attacking players, making it that much tougher for Villarreal to find minutes.

In fact, Villarreal just might wind up playing in the Mexican second division for Cruz Azul’s reserve team, which might not be the worst thing if it means regular minutes and a chance to impress Cruz Azul enough for a permanent transfer.

That might seem like an unglamorous path for such a promising young American player, but it might just be the path that helps him develop into a pro more quickly.

That is small consolation for Galaxy fans who still haven’t gotten over the disastrous Mike Magee trade. Even though there are still several exciting prospects on the Galaxy roster, Villarreal was supposed to be the one with the brightest future and most potential. Now, he is in Mexico with no guarantee of ever wearing a Galaxy uniform again.

Only time will tell whether this move was a shrewd bit of a business by a club that correctly cashed in on an overvalued prospect, or the second colossal mistake made by a team that doesn’t have much of a track record of making terrible moves.

SIZING UP THE OTHER CRUZ AZUL SIGNINGS FROM MLS

And what of Michael Farfan and Rafael Baca? Should their departures be seen as a sign that Liga MX is ready to start raiding MLS rosters?

Don’t be so sure.

In the case of Baca, the San Jose Earthquakes sold an expendable player heading into the final year of his contract and wasn’t going to re-sign. By unloading Baca and keeping Sam Cronin, the Earthquakes now can focus on bringing in a more attack-minded central midfield partner for Cronin. The team also secures some transfer revenue for a player who was leaving in a year anyway.

In the case of Farfan, he took had just one year left on a deal he had no interest in renewing. He has had two largely disappointing seasons in Philadelphia since impressing as a rookie, and while the Union planned on bringing him back in 2014, having a chance to sell him and secure a fee wasn’t exactly a tough decision for a team that can use the allocation money to address a variety of needs.
 
Are Baca or Farfan a good bet to see minutes at Cruz Azul? Both seem to be long shots, but they have shown good form at varying times in their MLS careers, so they are capable of performing if given the opportunity.

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