PORTLAND, Ore. – Jorge Villafaña’s dream almost never came true.
He had always wanted to be a professional soccer player, and in 2007 the then-senior at Anaheim High School in Southern California went to an open tryout with Chivas USA – but he was cut.
Facing his backup plan of playing college soccer, Villafaña’s family told him about Sueño MLS, a nationally televised reality TV show with a chance to sign with an MLS team, Chivas USA, the prize. At first Villafaña resisted, having already been cut by the team, but his family talked him into it.
And to his surprise, the 17-year-old Villafaña won, beating out 2,000 other contestants to earn a spot on Chivas’ U-19 squad.
“It was a good thing that they did to find local talent,” Villafaña told MLSsoccer.com, looking back on his breakthrough into MLS ahead of the 2015 Sueño competition.
It’s a story that Villafaña has told a million times, as the first and, to this point, only Sueño winner to earn an MLS first-team contract.
What has gone without fanfare after Villafaña became known as El Sueño, however, is the hard work he’s put in ever since to first move up to the Chivas reserve team and then the first team all in the 2007 season. He’s translated that chance into a solid MLS career, which continues on an upward trajectory as the starting left back for the Portland Timbers.
“At first, yeah, it was a dream come true,” Villafaña said. “But now it’s a reality, you know, because it’s now more like the opportunity is there, but now I have to work every day and it’s my job now and there’s a competition. So you have to be working hard.”
Villafaña’s career may have started in a dream, but it’s the work that has defined it ever since.
Never the most athletically gifted nor a player blessed with size, Villafaña has made his mark through his tenacious mentality. With Chivas USA, he was defined by his versatility, willing to play in the midfield or along the backline.
He even pushed his way into the US national team picture, getting call-ups at various youth levels and then playing a significant role in the U-23’s Olympic qualifying campaign in 2012.
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With Portland, his ability to get forward and solid left foot have made him a perfect fit in the high-pressing system of Timbers head coach Caleb Porter, who also coached him on the US U-23 team.
“He’s scrappy… probably because he’s had to fight for everything,” Porter told media last week. “So I like those qualities in him.”
Villafaña first came to Portland, in an offseason trade ahead of the 2014 season, more as an afterthought, overshadowed by a number of more high-profile moves made following Porter’s first season with the team. The Timbers midfield was crowded, and starting left back Michael Harrington seemed entrenched in his spot.
By the end of the year, however, Villafaña had gone from being left out of game-day rosters to having supplanted Harrington, who has since been traded to the Colorado Rapids.
Through it all, the drive to work harder than the next man is what has driven him – the same mentality he took to the Sueño competition all those years ago.
“I’m always the guy, even if I’m having a bad day, I’m always going to run and work,” said Villafaña, who spent much of his youth growing up in Penjamo, Mexico. “And I think yeah, that’s what’s keeping me here and keeping me playing is working my ass off. I think that’s the thing that I always remember, work, work, work.”
And even though he’s in an entrenched situation with a starting spot for really the first time in his career, that mentality remains the same for Villafaña. The kid with a dream to become a professional soccer player is now a man, with a wife and two young girls, playing for a livelihood.
“I’m here, I’m enjoying it, I’m having a great life,” he said.
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.