The World Cup champion and former Barcelona star is in the “middle of nowhere,” training at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey in preparation for the club’s inaugural MLS season. For the captain without teammates, a pair of local players who would later be on opposite sides of New York’s colorful and fierce derby were chosen as training partners – NYCFC defender R.J. Allen and Red Bulls midfielder Mike Grella.
“He was a player who achieved so much and here he is training literally in the middle of nowhere at Ramapo College with two American players,” Allen said. “Never in my mind would I have dreamed of that.”
Allen figured the 90-minute sessions would be relatively low-key. After all, here was a player whose accomplishments are almost unmatched and it was still two months from the beginning of preseason.
Allen found out quickly that would not be the case.
“You’d think in that moment, maybe I’m just going to kick it with David, but we’re going at it 1-v-1, he’s tackling hard, playing balls to the wall,” Allen said. “It didn’t matter if it was a simple passing drill or going to goal and working on finishing.”
Now teammates for the better part of three seasons, what Allen saw in a few workouts a couple of times a week for two months is played out every single day at NYCFC’s training facility in Purchase, New York. That intensity will continue through at least 2018, as NYCFC announced in May that they'd signed Villa to a one-year extension.
Villa’s pedigree, or even his age – he turned 35 in December – has never altered his approach to training. The passion and competitiveness fans see on game day are the same in the quiet of the Westchester suburbs.
“He’s definitely one of the most competitive guys I’ve come across in the game,” Allen said. “It doesn’t matter if its 7-v-7 or 11-v-11, going to goal, he’s going 100 percent. You’d think at his age he’d maybe back off a bit in training and save his legs, but he always puts his head down and is one hardest working guys I’ve come across.”
Villa’s intensity comes across in many ways, from verbal altercations with teammates because he didn’t like a challenge – he and Allen had an exchange at training a year ago – to the scowl on his face as part of the losing team in a small-sided game.
There’s also the joy of winning in those games, like ripping off his pinnie and celebrating following a game-winning goal.
“He’s fighting, he’s working hard, he doesn’t like to lose games. He was on the losing side today and you can see his face, he was really angry,” said NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira. “This is how young players have to learn. Just to look at him in training and they will learn a lot from him.”
As the captain, Villa is the last player to speak to the club before each game. One memorable pregame talk came last Oct. 23, when he delivered a passionate message to his teammates before a 4-1 home win against Columbus Crew SC in the regular season finale.
“I told the guys in the locker room before the game to remember the first day in Florida, with the runs in preseason and today play 90 minutes for the runs in Florida,” Villa said after the victory.
Villa isn’t always as vocal after matches. Despite urging from the club’s public relations staff, Villa at times declines to speak to the press, even after victories, because he’s upset at his own performance.
“The most difficult for me is to not have chances,” Villa said after a loss at D.C. United in April. “When I don’t have chances and I [don’t score] of course I’m disappointed. My objective is to score goals and I am happier when I have chances and [don’t score] than have no chances.”
Jack Harrison, the club’s burgeoning star winger, is the most recent teammate to lock horns with Villa on the training pitch.
“It’s tough to be with someone like that who is always constantly wanting to win, whether it’s small-sided games or whatever. It’s just something you have to take when he’s shouting at you or something you know you have to step your game up,” Harrison said. “When you see him play in the small-sided games, you see his passion come out. It’s hard to describe, but you can just see when he’s angry or mad, it just rubs off on the team.”
In the past, midfielder Mikey Lopez heard the scuttlebutt about older stars from Europe – that perhaps some don’t train as hard as they’ve done before, that they don’t take MLS seriously, that they’re looking for one final payday before retiring.
“David is completely different. From the first day I stepped on the field with him he’s been all-in all the time. It never stops. You see it in games, but in training he’s the same way,” Lopez said. “He doesn’t take a play off. Everything is at full speed, everything is game-like for him and it’s good for everyone else because we just follow his lead.”
Vieira, who had his own legendary playing career, isn’t surprised by Villa’s drive. He says it’s a required ingredient to have the success the Spanish national team legend has had.
“He couldn’t play on that level without having that bite,” Vieira said. “You can’t play at that level if you don’t have that inside you because look at the clubs he’s played for. You have to have that if you want to compete against players around. We are in an industry where there is no favor. You get what you deserve and this is the player he is.”
While Villa is always locked in on the field, Lopez said the 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP isn’t dialed in all the time away from it. He describes Villa as a locker room “prankster,” something that’s evident when he posts pictures of sleeping teammates on NYCFC road trips.
Turns out his brilliance with a ball at his feet doesn’t exactly translate to other games, either.
“Let’s just say I’ve yet to see David pick up the [ping-pong] paddle in the players’ lounge,” Allen said.
Added Lopez: “He’s not that good at anything else, I think. I don’t think he has any other talents except for soccer.”