Fresh off breakout U-20 showing, Jose Villarreal targets LA Galaxy starting spot

CARSON, Calif. – Jose Villarreal is looking to build on his breakout performance at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship now that he's back with the LA Galaxy, who could certainly use the depth and instincts he provides up top.

The 19-year-old Homegrown forward scored three goals in four games as the US reached the final in Mexico and qualified for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey, and the experience, he says, ought to help him as he battles for significant playing time – and possibly a starting role – with the Galaxy.

“Just being able to be that go-to guy on the [US] team,” said Villarreal, who scored the lone goal in the 1-0 victory over Costa Rica and two more in a 4-2 win over Canada. “They kind of looked for me most of the time, so being able to help my team and be the one guy they looked to play ... just felt like a leader. Not a vocal leader, but just on-the-field performance-wise.”

Villarreal made a splash as a rookie last year with LA, coming off the bench to bury a fine equalizer (above) in a mid-July clash at Vancouver and scoring another goal in a 4-0 rout of the Puerto Rico Islanders in CONCACAF Champions League group play. He made 14 first-team competitive appearances in 2012, including a brief stint in the 3-0 romp over Seattle in the Western Conference final first leg. He also scored three goals in nine MLS Reserve League appearances.

The Inglewood native returned to camp just before the Galaxy departed for last week's Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Herediano but did not travel to Costa Rica. He could partner Robbie Keane up top in Wednesday's second leg (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer), or in Sunday's SuperClasico showdown with Chivas USA (5 pm ET, UniMas), with Mike Magee moving into midfield.

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“I knew all along at some point I'd probably be brought back [into midfield], whether it's Jose or Landon [Donovan] coming back in ...,” Magee said. “Jose's great. He's always been great. Last year there were a lot of times a lot of us were kind of arguing for him to get minutes. He's a guy we believe in. We know how good he's going to be in the future.”

Villarreal was away from LA for nearly a month while with the U-20s after a fine start to Galaxy camp, with goals in each of the team's first two preseason games, victories over the US U-17 national team and USL Pro side LA Blues.

“It was very tough [being away],” he said. “In preseason, I knew there were potential spots to be taken. The time I was there, I think I took advantage of it. And it was another good experience to be with the U-20s. Now that I'm here, I'm expecting to start of where I finished off the preseason and go from there, working hard.”

That's what head coach Bruce Arena wants to see.

“It's a good experience to play in your age group,” Arena said, “but he's playing with the big boys now and has to make that adjustment. We all know Jose's a player with a lot of promise, and we're hopeful we can get more out of him this year.”