Becoming USMNT's first-choice left back? A reality, not a dream, for Jorge Villafaña
- Jorge Villafaña's entire career has been about overcoming odds and unlikelihoods. Now he sets out for his biggest challenge: Locking down a starting position as USMNT left back.
The odds are pretty good that Jorge Villafaña will start for the U.S. national team in this month’s World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico.
DaMarcus Beasley, the indefatigable 35-year-old who will become the first American to play a part in five World Cup cycles if he appears in either game, seems to be the primary competition. There are others on this U.S. roster who’ve played left back, of course, but chemistry and comfort zones are back in vogue under Bruce Arena. The manager has said he prefers midfielder Fabian Johnson in midfield. The same is almost certainly true for midfielder Kellyn Acosta. And central defender Matt Besler and central defender Tim Ream are central defenders.
So if the race to start Saturday night’s friendly against Venezuela, next Thursday in Denver and then just three days later in Mexico City really comes down to Villafaña and Beasley, the former should feel good about his chances.
Villafaña, 27, couldn’t get a look under Jurgen Klinsmann, but his stock has risen sharply since Arena took over. The defender was invited to the national team’s January camp and has started three of four internationals this year, including the March qualifiers against Honduras and Panama.
Back at Santos Laguna, Villafaña then recaptured his place in the first 11 and started nine consecutive matches for Los Guerreros. They were on a 3-0-5 run heading into the Liga MX quarterfinals but lost the first leg, 4-1, to Toluca. Villafaña wasn’t the weak link, but coach José Manuel ‘Chepo' de la Torre opted not to dress the defender for the return match. It was a puzzling decision, but not one that’s likely to deter Arena or damage Villafaña’s confidence. He’s not on Santos’s transfer list. And he’s come too far, and overcome much higher hurdles, to reach this improbable threshold. Winning the starting job with the USA may wind up being the easy part.
“It’s just exciting and I’m enjoying it,” Villafaña told SI.com as the Liga MX campaign reached its conclusion. “I’m really happy that I’m passing through this point right now in my career.”
Two-to-one is nothing. Try 6,000-to-one. Those were the odds facing Villafaña on the first day of his unlikely journey one decade ago. It was early 2007. The Anaheim, California-born teenager already had been rejected once by Chivas USA academy coaches when his uncle took the liberty to enter him in a contest. Organized by MLS and Univision, it was called Sueño MLS, and it essentially was soccer Survivor. The prize was a chance to train with, and perhaps play on, the Chivas U-19 team. Villafaña performed well enough to make it off the Sueño (which means 'Dream') waiting list of 4,000. He then beat out the other 1,999 or so entrants in the competition proper.
The tale is well known in soccer circles and probably deserves a look by the studios north of StubHub Center. There, Villafaña earned 14 minutes of first-team action for Chivas in 2007–along with a salary of $12,900. The following season he was a regular with the U.S. U-20 national team and by 2011, he was an MLS starter. Caleb Porter, who coached Villafaña with the U-23s and then later in Portland, cemented the former attacker’s transition to left back.
“It took a while to adjust to it all at first,” Villafaña said. “I came in from high school. I was two months with the [Chivas] U-19s and then from there I went into the first team. It took me a while to adjust at first. I was training with professional players, me being just a dumb little kid.”
Speaking to The New York Times in 2008, then Chivas captain and current New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said, “Imagine being a guy who wins a TV show and coming into a professional soccer team and trying to earn respect. At first, it was kind of a joke. But the way he came in and worked every day made everybody realize that he was here and he was for real and he wasn’t just a contest winner. He was real serious about becoming a professional soccer player.”
Nevertheless, his nickname appeared to be permanent: ‘Sueño.’ Beating out thousands of competitors wasn't easy, but it seemed Villafaña would forever be the guy who won the contest–no matter what he accomplished afterward.
Chivas was floundering and on its way out of business when Villafaña got a break and was traded to the Timbers. He and his wife loved the city, and in his second season in Portland (2015), Villafaña started 39 of 40 matches and won MLS Cup. He’s an energetic, skillful outside back with good range and technique, and his presence on the left flank was a big part of Portland’s championship run. That winter, his rights were purchased by Santos for a reported $1 million. Villafaña started—and then he didn’t—as he adjusted to one more leap in level. But thanks to his lack of first-team minutes last fall, another opportunity emerged.
Left back remained an unsettled U.S. position for a long time after the 2014 World Cup. Like Arena, Klinsmann had said he would’ve liked to push Johnson up into midfield. But Klinsmann rarely did so because he was never able to stick with Ream, Brek Shea or Greg Garza. Villafaña’s play in Portland was getting noticed, but it wasn’t enough for the then-national team manager. Neither was the transfer to Santos. Last year, Klinsmann tried Acosta and Besler at left back.
“I got frustrated thinking that I had really two good seasons [in Portland]. I came to Mexico. I played almost all the games. Probably he didn’t like me or something like that,” Villafaña said.
Arena did like him. He’d seen plenty of Villafaña while coaching the LA Galaxy, which was Chivas's landlord. Arena took over from Klinsmann last fall and made it clear he was looking for someone comfortable at the position.
“He’s a left back, which is one of the criteria I think you should have for selecting a left back,” he said of Villafaña.
The manager made the most of the fact that Villafaña was rooted to the Santos bench, brought him to January camp and soon discovered that his knack for quick comfort with new challenges remained intact.
This time, Villafaña wasn’t a contest winner. He was a veteran pro who had won a title and earned a transfer abroad. He was no “dumb little kid.” Instead, Villafaña believed he belonged and played like it.
“Some think I won that reality show then I got like a free pass to coming a professional player. It’s different. It comes from the work you do,” he said. “[Other U.S. players] knew who I was. They saw me already. They know that I’d proven myself in the league, MLS Cup, moving down to Mexico.”
Villafaña hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He knows Sueño opened the door. But it doesn’t define him like it used to. He said he was addressed as ‘Jorge’ or ‘Villa’ far more frequently by his U.S. teammates. He fit in quickly and played 180 quality minutes as the Americans secured four crucial points in the pressure-packed March qualifiers. In three months, Villafaña rose from the fringes of the national team program to first or second on the left back depth chart.
Asked to describe how this newest rise felt, he spoke about his emotions before the match against Honduras in San Jose.
“I remember the day before that I knew I was going to start. I was really happy and excited, but it didn’t hit me until I was walking on to the field and they started singing the national anthem,” he said. “My stomach started turning and I felt a lot of emotions. I was about to make my debut. When I was 17, I felt that way. It was a long time that I haven’t had that feeling. So it felt really good and really amazing, mostly because it was a qualifier and we needed to win, and giving me the opportunity to play in that really meant a lot.”
Villafaña’s favorite story from the subsequent game in Panama happened off the field, and it reminded him how far he’d come since those strange days as a 17-year-old contest winner. He ran into Heath Pearce, the retired defender who spent 2011 and early ’12 with Chivas and now works for KICK TV.
“We were talking and he said, ‘I remember when you were at Chivas and I think I might have been mean to you,’” Villafaña recalled. “And then he said, ‘But how old are you now? You’ve been around a long time. I’m really happy for you. You’ve worked hard.’ It was funny. I remember Heath and some of the players when I started saying, ‘Is this real? Is he really playing with us after winning a TV show?’”
Pearce, who earned 35 U.S. caps, shared these memories of ‘Sueño’:
“So with Sueño, he got a lot of slack for winning a competition but was always respected as a footballer. The issue I had with him … was his focus. He had the talent and potential but he would sometimes not understand the moments of the game—when to hold the ball, when to go at a guy. His work ethic was always great and you can see that in his development. In fact, him having signed so young, he's now been in a professional environment for 10 years, and having survived that long has clearly given him the confidence that he can play at the international level.”
He’ll need that confidence at the Estadio Azteca and when he returns to Santos ahead of the fall season, where his incumbency is in question. That’s the only question, however. Nobody with the national team or Santos wonders if he can play. Nobody worries he doesn’t belong. Sueño now is nothing but a good story.
“Last season some of them didn’t know [about the show] and when they found out they were like, ‘You really came out of a reality show?’ And I told them it was more like an open tryout, but they were amazed,” Villafaña said.
He’s not called ‘Sueño’ at Santos. While many athletes earn their nicknames through their play and performance, Villafaña employed the same to finally lose his.
“I didn’t mind it,” he said of the nickname. “But it’s not like I miss it.”