With the majority of American players stationed in Europe off for the summer, our focus in this space this summer transfers to individual talents rather than our weekly list updates. Each week, we will take an in-depth look at an American who, for one reason or another, is peaking our interest at the moment. This week, we’ll take a look at a rising star who is looking to become a stalwart for a side growing in optimism.
Club: Santos Laguna
Lately, the USMNT has been graced with some rising stars that have the country on track to possibly ascend through the international soccer ranks. With all of the breakout stars on the horizon, a few players can get lost in the shuffle, but Jorge Villafana is quickly jumping from a USMNT fringe player to a full-blown stalwart in the side. He hasn’t completely cemented his spot in Bruce Arena’s lineup yet, but there’s no
Villafana’s path towards footballing stardom is a winding tale of his life in two familiar countries, the USA and our neighbors to the south, Mexico. Though he was born in Anaheim, Villafana’s earliest memories probably come from Mexico, where he moved at one year old. From a football perspective, that move probably ultimately suited him well, as Villafana, like many Mexicans, was playing football around the clock and developing his early skills by sheer repetition and love of the game.
His mother would leave to head back to the USA for work when Villafana was still young, but he didn’t make the switch back to his birth country until he was 15, when he crossed the border to the unknown. At that point, Jorge’s last name (as it was from birth) was Flores, from his father, but after being raised solely by his mother, Jorge switched his last name to Villafana in 2011 to honor his mother.
There were plenty of hurdles to climb for Villafana in his career, and he took them in stride. Maybe the most important moment of his young career was when Villafana won a Chivas USA scouting competition and earned a spot in the MLS club’s academy. That proved to be a massive step forward as Villafana fought his way through the academy and to Chivas’ first team to became a mainstay in the lineup. Meanwhile, he was earning call ups from the U-20 and U-23 USMNT sides as he tied his future to Mexico’s greatest rivals.
With an ascending career, Villafana’s hard work was starting to pay off, and that truly came to fruition when the Portland Timbers traded for him in 2014. Villafana spent two years with the club, and in the second, the Timbers hoisted their first ever MLS cup, with Villafana playing a big role down the stretch. He wasn’t scoring the goals that would take them to the title, but Villafana was quietly exceeding expectations and making a name for himself on the flank.
Now, Villafana is on to another challenge, a two-part effort which concerns his new club, Santos Laguna, and his downright impressive play for the USMNT. For
That form caught the eye of Bruce Arena, who then rewarded Villafana with some time at USMNT camps and, more importantly, playing time in the most recent round of qualifiers. In just his sixth cap for the USMNT, Villafana took the field against Trinidad and Tobago at what the time was close to a must-win for the USMNT. With Mexico lurking on the horizon, the USA needed three points, and Villafana put in a shift to remember. The left back was lock-down on defense while getting forward and providing some dangerous balls in the final third as the USMNT grabbed a 2-0 win and reclaimed their solid position in the Hex.
Though that play didn’t earn Villafana a start against Mexico a few days later, with Arena instead opting for DaMarcus Beasley among a host of other changes, Villafana seems squarely next in line for the job with Beasley in the twilight of his career. A lot can be said about Beasley’s consistent play for the USMNT for more than a decade (he became the first player to ever appear in five different qualifying cycles with his start against Mexico), but with him fading at 35, a clear hole in the lineup is forming.
At 27, and soon to be entering his prime, Villafana is perfectly ready to fill that void. He undoubtedly still has work to do and might truly have another couple notches left to raise his game to an even higher level. If he can do that, Villafana will be locked into the USMNT squad for some time to come, and assuming all goes right with qualification, it’s hard to think he won’t be starting in Russia in a year’s time.