Castillo: David Villa's MLS MVP win fitting for devoted captain

NEW YORK -- As soon as NYCFC announced they’d have a “special announcement” on Tuesday morning, the proverbial cat pretty much leaped out of the bag. With only one MLS end-of-year award left to announce, it was clear — the 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP nod would go, after all, to team megastar David Villa. It marked NYCFC's first MVP win, in just the team's second season in the league.

For sure, this provoked some grumbling. There was still the issue of MLS Cup contender, Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, and his snub from the nominee shortlist in the first place. And, of course the other two remaining finalistsBradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan — came from NYCFC’s archrivals, the New York Red Bulls. But few could say they were surprised at Villa’s win, or that he didn’t deserve it.

But even in the award’s slick announcement space, a minimalist, glass-walled box in Manhattan’s SoHo that mostly hosts fashion shoots, Villa himself couldn’t stay totally unruffled. MLS Commissioner Don Garber, in the presentation event’s opening remarks, remarked on how much Villa’s passion has yielded both on and off the field. “[The award] has to speak to what he is as a man, and what kind of character he has,” Garber said of Villa, “and how he’s represented himself as a professional.”

Villa wore the impact of all of this on his face. A World Cup win and a host of other big-time international awards later, he remains as dedicated as ever to his club success — to the benefit of both the team and the league.

“Some people thought maybe I came here to find a golden retirement,” he said in his acceptance speech. “But I came here to be strong, to be competitive, and to show everybody I want to grow in my career and make history.” That’s clear in his MLS productivity – just one goal shy of this year’s Golden Boot (with that nod going to his MVP-race rival, the Red Bulls’ Wright-Phillips).

But there’s another significant part of that quote that naturally reveals Villa’s dedication. It came in English, the language in which he chose to begin his remarks, and which he barely spoke upon arriving in the US two-and-a-half years ago.

But the real emotion welled up a few minutes later, when NYCFC surprised him with a montage video of his peers, present and former, congratulating him on the award. Villa’s face practically split from grinning as a succession of NYCFCers – Jack Harrison, Khiry Shelton – and Spanish stars – Juan Mata, Xavi, Juanfran, Koke, Gerard Pique – appeared on screen. A message from the legendary Raul even brought Villa’s wife, Patricia Gonzalez, to tears.

But Villa’s seriousness about his leadership returned, soon enough, over any celebration of his own glory. In a Facebook Live Q&A after the presentation, he continued to turn any questions back to he collective good. For instance, how had Patrick Vieira perhaps helped him towards the MVP nod, one fan asked on the platform? Villa pointed to how it had changed the team’s success as a whole. “Of course, the last year wasn’t good, and he changed this,” he said of Vieira. “He gave us a lot to be competitive, to be aggressive, to be winners.”

And how would he hope the defense would improve, another fan asked? “When I talk about defense or offense, I’m talking about the 11 players out on the pitch,” he said. “It’s everything. Of course our goal this year is to be better on the defensive side, and the first player who can do that is the striker, me.”

Beyond that, though, Villa stressed that he’d continue to try to take his club to the top, and it was hard not to think of his chastened speech to NYCFC fans at the end of their 2015 season. “We promise that next year we’ll be here,” he told a packed Yankee Stadium back then, “so that the season will be much better.”

His message on Tuesday, a more triumphant day to be sure, continued on this same tack, with the MVP nod cementing Villa’s spot as one of the best DPs and ambassadors for MLS to date. “I promise everyone,” he said, “that after the 21st of January, I’ll try again to fight for the trophy.”