For Jorge Villafaña, return to US national team caps wild spring ride

Jorge Villafana - US national team - warming up

CHESTER, Pa. — When Dave Sarachan made his final substitution in the closing minutes of the US national team’s 3-0 win over Bolivia on Monday, a big cheer erupted from the Talen Energy Stadium crowd.

The ovation was likely an acknowledgement of teenage star and Pennsylvania native Christian Pulisic's exit. And yet they would've been just as deserved for his replacement, Jorge Villafaña.

With his insertion for Dortmund's Pulisic, Villafana completed a wild 10-day stretch that included a robbery, a Liga MX championship, place in US history and a return to the national team.

“Just a crazy roller coaster,” Villafaña said in the lead up to the US match.

It started when the Santos Laguna defender was robbed of $20,000 following the first leg of the Liga MX final on May 17. He and his wife were held at gunpoint, but weren’t harmed.

“There are so many situations where you hear people say they get robbed,” Villafaña said. “You never think it’s going to happen to you until it happens. At the end of the day, they took whatever they took and I’m just happy me and my family were OK. Money comes and goes. And two days later, we were rewarded with a trophy.”

Indeed, Santos Laguna drew Toluca in the second leg of the final on May 20 to win the Clausura Liga MX championship, 3-2 on aggregate. 

And Villafaña, who entered the match in the 55th minute, became just the third American to play for MLS and Liga MX champions, joining an exclusive fraternity that includes Herculez Gomez and Omar Gonzalez. The 28-year-old defender accomplished the first half of the feat in 2015 with the Portland Timbers.

“It’s a great accomplishment to put your name in history,” he said. “You win a title in MLS and then you go to a different league and win a title there. As a professional player, that’s what you want to do.”

Villafaña admitted Portland’s MLS Cup run in 2015 “feels like a long time ago.” But his connections to MLS remain strong, having played for Chivas USA from 2011 to 2013 (after winning a reality show contest, Sueño MLS, to get a tryout) and then the Timbers in 2014 and 2015. 

And Villafaña, who said he has six more months left on his contract with Santos, didn’t rule out a possible return.

“You never know what will happen,” he said. “The door is always open for me. I would like to stay in Mexico, I would like to stay in Santos. But if an offer comes in Mexico, MLS, or Europe, it all depends. You always want the best for you and your family.”

For now, most of his attention is on the US national team, where he’s one of the oldest and most seasoned players on a very young roster. Of the 25 players brought to Europe for friendlies vs. Ireland on Saturday (3 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMas, UDN) and France on June 9 (3 pm ET | ESPN, UniMas, UND), only Bobby Wood, DeAndre Yedlin and Joe Corona have earned more USMNT caps than Villafaña’s 17. 

Villafaña is also the only member of the current group who played in the Concacaf Gold Cup final last summer, when he started at left back in the United States’ 2-1 win over Jamaica in the final.

“You always try to be a leader,” the 28-year-old said. “When you step on the field, you can be a veteran there and show the leadership by the way you play, or the way you carry yourself on the field. I’m just trying to do my best here and lead the guys in a way we get the job done when the time comes.”

Being a leader might not always come naturally to Villafaña, who admits he can tend to be quiet. But for someone who went from reality show winner to US national team regular, he knows there are valuable lessons he can pass on to the teenagers coming through the program.

“These opportunities, they’re not easy to come by,” he said. “One day you can be here, and then you won’t be here anymore. You have to take advantage of it and always treat it like it’s going to be your last camp.”