CARSON, Calif. – Jose Villarreal returns this weekend to the site of his first great Major League Soccer success and, of course, he's hungry for more.
The 19-year-old forward, one of the brightest young stars in the league, burst into MLS consciousness with a stirring strike (above) to complete the LA Galaxy's late comeback for a 2-2 draw last July in Vancouver, a vital result in the club's summer resurgence en route to a second successive MLS Cup triumph.
He's followed it with three more goals for LA – two in CONCACAF Champions League play, plus a twisting stoppage-time volley for a 2-2 draw in Toronto at the end of March – a superb performance for the US in qualifying for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup and a growing reputation as a go-to forward when the pressure's on.
Villarreal says he “never really pays attention” to his finishes – “to me, it's just another goal” – but last year's was something special.
“My first [professional] goal. I'm never going to forget that ...,” he said on the eve on the Galaxy's clash Saturday afternoon with the Whitecaps at BC Place (7 pm ET; WATCH FREE on MLS Live). “As soon as it left my foot, I knew something good was going to come out of it. It was a good goal and helped my team out – that's what was important for me.”
It arrived in the 87th minute, with Juninho taking a superb ball from David Beckham and laying it off for Villarreal, who, as head coach Bruce Arena describes it, “does his little shake and bake and gets it on his left foot,” then buries the ball inside the far post.
“That was a little bit of Jose's coming-out party. He was fantastic that day,” Landon Donovan said. “He scored an unbelievable goal, a goal we'd seen him score a few times in training before that. He stepped on the field and made a real difference in a game we needed.”
“He can just really nail a ball,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “And it's not just strictly power. He can hook them and drive them or chip them. ... His ability to release a ball with power and precision is really quite amazing for a young kid.”
“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable than last year,” he said. “The guys make it easier each day, just helping me out and making me a better player. Cracking jokes around me and making me feel like I'm their little brother.”
Keane calls Villarreal a “clever player” with “great technique.” Magee says he's “a guy we want on the ball, because we know how good he is.”
Arena says it will take time to find out how good Villarreal can be.
“It's going to take him a little time to understand being a professional, and this year it's been a little bit difficult for him with the U-20 call-ups,” Arena sad. “It takes him out of rhythm with our group a little bit, but it's all part of the process.
"It's all that little stuff that plays a role in how he's moving along, and sometimes it doesn't help his development, other times he's OK with it, but we tend to see with the young players that they're in those peaks and valleys because of things like that.”