CARSON, Calif. – The decision to cut short Jose Villarreal's loan to Cruz Azul was his, says the LA Galaxy forward, who was frustrated over the lack of playing time and the demise of Cruz Azul Hidalgo, the Mexico City club's second team.
Villarreal, who made 45 first-team competitive appearances over two seasons (and scored a few memorable goals) for the Galaxy before agreeing in December to a year-long loan to Cruz Azul, returned to the MLS club last week and scored in his debut for LA Galaxy II, its USL PRO-based reserve team.
"I was just trying to see what was better for me, and the Hidalgo team just disappeared," Villarreal said following the Galaxy II training session Tuesday morning at StubHub Center. "That was somewhere I could have gotten minutes the rest of the year, but it's gone, and it being difficult to get in with [Cruz Azul's] first team, I thought it was best for me to come back and play here."
Villarreal, 20, never made a first-team gameday roster with Cruz Azul, played just once for Cruz Azul Hidalgo, in their Segunda Division finale in April (the team folded in May), and primarily saw time with the club's under-20 team. He said he has no regrets about the experience.
"It was a challenge, a challenge I learned a lot from," he said. "It wasn't a failure or disappointment. It's something I went down there with the mentality to do well, and things didn't go my way.
“Maybe if I would have gotten a few more games in, my decision would have been a lot tougher, but it is what it is, and I'm happy with it."
Cruz Azul didn't argue with his decision – Villarreal said they "supported me and helped me throughout the process" of ending the deal, which took about a month. He'd joined the Liga MX club along with fellow Southern Californians Rafael Baca (from the San Jose Earthquakes) and Michael Farfan (from the Philadelphia Union). Only Baca remains.
Villarreal said he matured while in Mexico City – he was married in February, which helped in that regard – and that "my style, I think, has changed." He's generally a fitter player, something Galaxy coach Bruce Arena harped on in the past, and said he's "a little more aggressive at going at players now. You should be looking forward to seeing that on the field."
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He showed some of that in the Galaxy II's 3-1 road loss Saturday to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, giving the Galaxy a short-lived first-half lead in a 63-minute outing, his first meaningful action since April. (His younger brother, Jaime, substituted in for him.)
A crowded schedule spurred Curt Onalfo, Los Dos' head coach, to start the forward, who, he said, "was a little sharper that I thought he would have been."
The Galaxy know what Villarreal can do, now they want to see him progress.
"He can score goals but he's also a guy who can set up his teammates, so all that stuff, we're starting to see," Onalfo said. "He's been out of commission for a while, so it's just a matter of him working on his game fitness, getting a little sharper in everything that he's doing, and he's come with a really good attitude. He's working hard, and it's nice to see that he contributed quickly. And he's moving along just fine."
Head coach Bruce Arena said he was "looking for him to just work hard, get better, try to position himself to get on the Galaxy roster at some point."
Villarreal, who says he might have turned down the loan had he known about Galaxy II beforehand, likes that plan.
"I felt relieved when I scored that goal in Pittsburgh, so that was good for me," he said. "Obviously, I have some things to prove, not only to other people but to myself, that I can really come back from [the disappointment in Mexico] and do well."