CARSON, Calif. – Jose Villarreal never expected to step right into Cruz Azul's starting lineup, so if he's frustrated that he's not received quite the playing time he'd hoped, he understands.
The 20-year-old forward, who joined the Mexico City giants on loan this year from the LA Galaxy, trains with La Máquina's first team but has not made a game-day roster. He is usually sent down to the club's Under-20 team for games.
He's also made one appearance with Cruz Azul Hidalgo, the club's second-division side, coming on in the 85th minute of its Liga de Ascenso finale for former San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Rafael Baca.
“It's going good,” Villarreal said this week, when he was in camp with Tab Ramos and the US Under-21 national team as US Soccer officially began preparations for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. “I'm learning new stuff, new philosophy from the coach, and it's not bad. ... I'm still learning, it's a long year to go, and I'm happy.”
Villarreal made 45 first-team competitive appearances in two seasons as a Homegrown player for Bruce Arena with the Galaxy, starting 17 games last year, 12 of them in MLS. He showed a knack for scoring meaningful and sometimes spectacular goals, with five in league and CONCACAF Champions League play and another in last year's friendly against Real Madrid, and he has another half-dozen strikes in 13 MLS Reserve League matches.
He decided to accept Cruz Azul's loan offer last December – joining fellow Southern California products Baca and Michael Farfan, who joined the club on transfers at the same time – to “try something new that maybe would help me with my development as a young player.”
“I talked with my family, with my agent, and we felt like I needed something new,” Villarreal said. “To go learn a new style down there and come back here and, hopefully, apply it here and do something good here.”
Cruz Azul have an option to purchase Villarreal's contract. He has no feel for how that may play out.
“I just want to keep playing, and, hopefully, this next preseason I work hard and get some [first-team] minutes,” he said. “If it happens I stay over there, I stay, but if I come back to LA, I'll bring whatever I learned down there.”
He said adapting to the Mexican style of play hasn't been difficult – “I grew up watching it, and I went to a few games when I would go visit down in Mexico with my family” – and that Cruz Azul's staff has asked him to “be more aggressive toward goal. They know I can shoot from inside and outside the box, so they just want me to get on the ball, combine and shoot.”
Where Villarreal has seen progress is with his fitness.
“When I first got there, I had to do preseason in [Mexico City's 7,300-foot] altitude,” he said. “It was rough, but it was good. Even now, I still feel a little tired sometimes, but it's good. ...
"I feel really fit. I know Bruce would be happy if he saw me right now, how fit I am.”