Jorge Villafana: 'I Knew Eventually It Would Happen'
April 10, 2017
THIS YEAR BEGAN with more questions than answers for the United States men's national team. How would the players respond to new head coach Bruce Arena? Which new players would step up and make a case to be part of the team? How would Arena fill the team’s biggest holes—including the left back spot, which has been the Achilles' heel for decades?
Much has come into focus in recent weeks. The national team is not out of the woods in terms of World Cup qualifying but its standing has stabilized. Arena has not made heavy turnover in the player pool that he inherited from Jurgen Klinsmann but some different players are emerging. The biggest addition so far: Jorge Villafana.
“I am extremely happy and honored to have been a part of those two World Cup qualifiers,” Villafana told American Soccer Now from Mexico. “I just want to use that experience and move forward. I am back with my club and hope and expect more call-ups in the future.”
Filling the left back position has proved challenging for many U.S. coaches. Klinsmann leaned heavily on DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson—both midfielders. Bob Bradley eventually settled on central defender Carlos Bocanegra as his first-choice left back. During Arena’s first tenure of the national team, he used right back Frankie Hedjuk at the position, along with midfielders Bobby Convey and Eddie Lewis.
Arena told reporters in January that Villafana has been on his radar for quite some time.
“I’ve seen Jorge in his days at Chivas USA, at Portland, and then he played against the Galaxy a year ago with Santos and I thought he played very well,” Arena said. “I always thought he was a player that needed an opportunity with the national team program.”
With several key players unavailable, Villafana, 27, started both games as the U.S. crushed Honduras 6-0 and hung on for a 1-1 draw away at Panama. His roommate during this window, former Portland teammate and friend Darlington Nagbe, helped Villafana integrate into the squad.
“Bruce is a coach who is always trying to make the players happy and put the players in a spot where it's going to take advantage of their game,” Villafana said. “I think the guys have responded pretty well from the way he's coaching. We just spent two weeks together and we have a lot of work to do. But I think we're going to do pretty well in the next qualifiers and we're going to be in Russia.
“The mood of the team was a little bit disappointed after the draw because we knew we could get the win. But at the same time we were really happy because it’s really tough to get an away point. So we were happy with our first win and going on the road and getting a valuable point against Panama.”
Villafana’s recent surge has not been limited to the international stage. He has become a force again for Liga MX side Santos Laguna. In 2015, Villafana was a key part of Portland's MLS championship, and at the start of 2016 he transferred to Santos and immediately became a regular at left back, displacing Mexican international Adrian Aldrete.
But that success took a negative turn in late September when Villafana was benched. He did not play any league minutes the rest of the calendar year.
After his January camp call-up, however, Villafana found his groove. He has started the last three games for Santos Laguna dating back to March 17, giving his manager, Jose “Chepo” Manuel de la Torre, no reason to take him out of the lineup.
During Klinsmann's rein, however, Villafana never got a sniff.
“I think it was a little bit disappointing that I didn't get a call because I had a great year winning MLS Cup at the end of the year,” Villafana said. “Then I came to Santos and we had a good tournament in the league. I never got a call and I was pretty disappointed.
"I know that is how it is. It happens. I knew eventually it would happen. I am just really happy that Bruce gave me this opportunity to represent my country. Now I just have to take advantage of it.”
In June the United States will host Trinidad & Tobago before travelling to face archrivals Mexico—where the U.S. has never won in a World Cup qualifier. It will be a special game for Villafana as he holds dual citizenship with Mexico through his parents. He represented the United States at the youth level but was always eligible for Mexico until his appearance last month against Honduras formally cap-tied him to the Stars & Stripes.
“I always wanted to play for the United States national team,” Villafana said. “I played for the U-20 team and the U-23 team. It was always on the back of my mind that I wanted to play for the United States. It is where I was born and I have a lot of love for the country. I was disappointed at the time when I did not get the call and I was playing well. I knew Mexico could call me but I was always waiting for the call from the United States.”
If he continues to maintain his 2017 form moving forward Villafana’s addition to the national team could be huge. For one, it would give Arena a natural left back. Second it would push Fabian Johnson, who was previously the top left back option, into his preferred midfield position. Johnson has long been one of the most successful American players and moving him into his natural position will only boost the midfield as well.
But on a personal note, the journey has been especially rewarding for Villafana whose path to the top has been very uncommon. As most now know, he was discovered over a decade ago on the reality show Sueño MLS where he beat out more than 2,000 other competitors to earn a tryout in MLS. From there he made the youth team on Chivas USA followed by the U.S. U-20 World Cup team in 2009. From there he became an MLS champion with Portland, a Liga MX starter, and now he has the potential to play in a World Cup.
Just last year, Villafana said, he was skeptical about his chances to play with the national team. And now?
“I think about it and I remember when I was 17 and I didn't even want to go to the [Sueño] tryouts,” Villafana said. “I ended up going and now, 10 years later, I am playing professionally and with the national team. I may end up going to the World Cup. It's pretty amazing when you look back at all the work I've done. That hard work and dedication is paying off right now.
“Now that I've gotten these call-ups, started both games, and that the team played well, I think there is a pretty good chance if I stay healthy and keep playing that I'll be at the World Cup next year.”