CHICAGO – For the last several days, nearly everyone in and around the MLS All-Star Team has offered up voluminous praise for Real Madrid, their opponents in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game, presented by Target (8 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TSN, TVAS). And with good reason: Los Blancos are the reigning European champions, a rare achievement they’ve claimed three times in the last four seasons.
But not David Villa.
The reigning MLS MVP knows Madrid all too well. He built his own name in La Liga as a deadly goalscorer for Zaragoza and Valencia before becoming a household name as a star for FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid – Los Merengues’ two most bitter rivals, one a crosstown enemy and the other an eternal adversary for the biggest trophies in Spain and Europe.
Asked if Madrid are the best team in the world at present, Villa demurred, harking back to the all-conquering Barca sides he spearheaded from 2010-13 and the Atletico squad he led to an upset La Liga title in 2014.
“I can't say that. I can't say that because obviously for me the teams I've played for are better,” said Villa after the All Stars' training session on Tuesday. “As a former Atletico Madrid and Barcelona player, it's difficult to praise Real Madrid. What they have earned is based on merit and I have a lot of friends on that team and respect for them despite them always being my rival.
“They're enjoying a great moment right now, but I can't say that because for me the better teams are the ones I have played for.”
Those old allegiances die hard for “El Guaje," even as he plays in his third season in MLS as the linchpin of New York City FC’s attack.
Villa did acknowledge that Madrid, who feature several of his former Spanish national teammates, will pose a stiff challenge on Wednesday.
“I've seen two preseason games and they're at a good level,” he said. “Obviously it's early and you know you can take some things from matches in the preseason, but nothing is definitive until the season starts and you really see how teams perform. But they have great players and are a great team.”
This year marks the first time the All-Star Game has featured La Liga opposition. Villa sounded like he might have preferred to face one of his former clubs, but is deeply honored to be a member of the MLS Fan XI nonetheless.
“There had been a lot of talk about MLS wanting to do an All-Star Game vs. a strong Spanish club for a good while. On this occasion, it is Real Madrid,” he said. “For me, it's important, because the goal is to be here but it's always difficult because only 24 players make it from the whole league. I was voted by the people, and truthfully I'm happy about that.”