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Soccer; The defender nicknamed Sueno breaks through with US national team

First Published      Last Updated May 31 2017 05:45 pm

Commerce City, Colo. • His nickname Sueno means dream in Spanish. Fitting, given the intriguing story of American defender Jorge Villafana.

Born in Southern California, he moved to Mexico and grew up playing soccer in the streets before his family relocated back to Anaheim. He attended a nationally televised Major League Soccer player search — the inaugural Sueno MLS — as a teenager and won the tryout over a talented field. That break launched a career that led to a national team debut in January at age 27 as the Americans kept up their seemingly endless search for a left back in this World Cup qualifying cycle.




"I love my story," said Villafana, who changed his name from Flores to Villafana a few years ago as a tribute to his mother. "It's a good story."

He keeps writing new chapters, too.

Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as national team coach in November, saw Villafana in early 2016 when Arena's LA Galaxy lost to Villafana's Santos Laguna on 4-0 aggregate in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

"I remember talking to him after the game and asking him, 'Has the national team ever contacted you?' He goes, 'No,'" Arena recounted. "So when I got the job, that's the first thing I said, 'We need some help at left back.' We got him here.'"

Villafana gained a regular starting role at Santos Laguna in mid-March and held it until the Liga MX season's end in May. He figures to be an integral part as the Americans resume World Cup qualifying against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City, followed by a match at Mexico three days later.

"I'm ready to get to work," Villafana said ahead of Saturday's exhibition against Venezuela in Sandy at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Villafana moved to Guanajuato, Mexico, with his family as a youngster. It was there he learned how to play soccer by dribbling through the streets with his friends. He said he never played on a big-sized field until his family moved to Anaheim when he was a teenager.

In 2007, Major League Soccer launched a Sueno MLS competition in hopes of discovering new talent. The winner received a spot in an MLS academy.

Villafana was going to skip the tryout and instead attend church. But his family kept up the pressure until he agreed to go to soccer.

His uncle took him to the tryout about 30 minutes away, only to be informed that since he wasn't signed up already, someone had to drop out for Villafana to be included.

When someone failed to show, Villafana made the most of his chance by standing out with speed, ball-handling ability and confidence.

Villafana joined Chivas USA through its under-19 team in March 2007 and made the first squad a few months later. He played seven years for the organization before joining Portland and helping the Timbers to the 2015 MLS Cup title.

All the while, he was trying to work his way up the national ranks. He made 16 appearances for the U.S. Under-20 team from 2007-09 and served as captain. Bypassed by Klinsmann, he was invited by Arena to this year's January camp in Carson, Calif., and made an impression.

He debuted as a 69th-minute substitute in a Jan. 29 exhibition against Serbia and started in a pair of World Cup qualifiers, a 6-0 home win over Honduras on March 24 and a 1-1 tie at Panama four days later.

"He's a good player," Arena said. "He's got a ways to go, but still very promising."

With Arena preferring to start Fabian Johnson in midfield, where he plays for Borussia Moenchengladbach, Villafana appears to be the favorite to start again this month. DaMarcus Beasley, a 35-year-old left back, trying to become the first American to appear in five World Cup qualifying cycles, also is in camp.

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