On Wednesday in Carson, California, 18 hopefuls from across the United States will gather for the Sueño MLS National Finals, where one field player and one goalkeeper will emerge as winners of the the 10th edition of the completion. Their prize? A place in an MLS academy.
You can watch as the winner is revealed live, in-studio on the May 22 edition of the popular Univision sports show República Deportiva. This is the story of the first-ever Sueño MLS winner…
IT HAD ALL HAPPENED SO FAST. Weeks ago he’d been dragged to a soccer tryout. Now, 2,700 miles from home, Jorge Villafaña found himself on the set of Republica Deportiva.
A day prior, the 17-year-old had packed his things and boarded a plane for Miami. Now he was wearing a lucha libre mask and a baggy red-and-white striped jersey on a Univision stage, his image broadcast into homes all across the United States. His life was about to change.
Slowly Villafaña removed the mask – a symbolic reveal in the luchador tradition – and the cameras focused in. The sheepish teenager’s identity came into focus. Here was the winner of the first-ever Sueño MLS, the newest member of the Chivas USA academy and, soon enough, the next Mexican-American soccer star.
But on that late March day in 2007, Villafaña was simply a kid living a dream, one that would only get more vivid as the years went on.
JORGE FLORES, AS HE WAS THEN KNOWN, WASN'T PARTICULARLY INTERESTED in going to the Sueño MLS tryout. He’d seen the ads on television, but had plans that President’s Day weekend. He was going to make some money cleaning a local church with his uncle, maybe hang out with some friends.
Still his mother and uncle, Juanita and Ruben Villafaña, refused to back down. Just give it a shot, they said. You’ve got nothing to lose.
But it wasn’t just the money he was leaving on the table that made Jorge reluctant. He was still smarting from the bitter taste of rejection, well known to teenage boys from the soccer field to the dance floor.
“I went and tried out with Chivas USA the year before and nothing happened,” he recalls. “They told me that I should practice more and get a little bit better.”
In the past year, he’d played with his school team and spent weekends at tournaments with his club team. He’d improved, but it might not be enough. The odds were long, nearly 2,000 players would be there. Besides, there was only one day of tryouts left.
Jorge swallowed his pride and climbed in Ruben’s car for the ride to Bell Gardens, nestled between Interstate 5 and Route 710 on the way to Los Angeles. Then he waited. The teenage striker had missed the online registration. If there were no-shows, he’d be given a chance to compete. If not, he’d head home empty handed.
A spot opened up, and the rest is history. A few days later, the group was trimmed to 60 players, Jorge among them. Then a week later he was among the 24 who trained alongside Chivas USA’s U-19 academy team for two weeks. And then there was one.
“It was an immense happiness when he won,” Ruben says.
His speed, his fight and his left foot helped Jorge stand out, as did a cocksure swagger on the field juxtaposed by a pervading calm off it.
“He was a very balanced child, a kid who was very focused on school. He didn’t like to go out or bum around, thank God,” Juanita says. “School, soccer, home. School, soccer, home. Very balanced and a very good kid.”
In the matter of a month, he’d used a reality TV show to force his way into Chivas USA’s academy, becoming the youngest player on the U-19 squad. In July, after a series of standout performances, Jorge signed his first professional contract.
Rather than lugging a backpack to school every day at Anaheim High School, Juanita watched with pride as her son commuted to Carson, a 45-minute drive from their home, every day for training. His dreams had become reality.
“If it wasn’t for the Sueño MLS, I probably would’ve gone to college and I don’t know what would’ve happened,” Jorge says, “but I’m sure I wasn’t going to be playing professionally.”
PLENTY ABOUT JORGE VILLAFAÑA HAS CHANGED since he arrived at Chivas USA nine years ago. His haircut, for one. His last name, though that came later. The nickname, however, has mostly stuck.
From the moment he walked into the MLS club’s locker room that summer, Villafaña was known as – what else? – Sueño.
“He had the worst hair when he first came. He had like this weird side spike that had like red color in it and he had one of those small little tail braids that was like 10 inches long off the back of his hair,” remembers Jesse Marsch, then Chivas USA captain and current New York Red Bulls head coach. “Right away, everyone’s response was, ‘Really, we’re bringing a guy into training who won the Sueño contest?’”
At the time, the Goats’ roster was stocked with winners, El Tri legends such as Francisco Palencia and Claudio Suarez and MLS stalwarts like Marsch and Ante Razov. Though there was plenty of teasing, the locker room adopted Villafaña once they saw he was willing to learn.
Those early years, Villafaña says, are when he learned to be a professional. Unlike prospects with resumes that include youth international call-ups and hype from an early age, his formative experiences in the game had come in high school and with his small club in Santa Ana. He knew he had no right to have an inflated ego.
“I think they kind of saw me as a little kid,” Villafaña says. “They were screaming at me, but almost like soccer dads. They never let me down, and I think that helped me a lot.”
He closed out 2007 with the United States U-20 team. His confidence grew. Season by season, “Sueño” found his footing as a professional. He was no longer the guy who won a reality TV show. He was one of the most dependable players on the roster.
“When I looked around the field as the captain and the guy in the middle of the field and started to think, ‘Who can I count on today?,’ Sueño was often right there at the top of the list,” Marsch says. “He gained all of our respect. Day after day I think by how hard he worked and the quality that he had, he started to show that he could be a big player.”
IN 2011, HIS FIRST YEAR AS A CHIVAS USA STARTER, Jorge gave Juanita a Mother’s Day gift she’ll never forget. He went to the courthouse in Santa Ana and traded Flores, his father’s name, for Villafaña to honor the woman who’d believed in him since birth.
“He didn’t tell me he was going to do that,” Juanita says. “For Mother's Day, he gave me the papers, the documents. It was such a joy for me. I was the mother and father of the house.”
From then on, it would be the Villafaña name he made famous.
By the time he was traded from Chivas USA to the Portland Timbers ahead of the 2014 season, the Goats’ final campaign in MLS, Villafaña had become the club’s longest-tenured field player. The kid who’d owed his big break to a televised open tryout had finished with 86 appearances and seven goals for the franchise.
The transaction largely flew under the radar, but Timbers manager Caleb Porter had a plan for Villafaña, whom he’d scouted and coached as manager of the US U-23s. Though he’d played mostly on the wing for Chivas, Porter believed his future lay at left back.
The move didn’t take immediately.
Attacking was still his strength and a spot on the gameday roster, much less a starting spot, was far from guaranteed as Porter leaned on veteran Michael Harrington while Sueño learned the ropes. But an injury to Harrington opened the door, and Villafaña did what he’s done since he was 17 years old – he took advantage of the opportunity.
“He just needed to learn the position defensively,” Porter says. “That was what took time, and then once you got that, he’s really the perfect guy to be in that role. I hate to say it, but he was kind of wasting away [at Chivas USA]. Obviously we got him at the perfect time because it was right before the team went defunct.”
In 2015, Villafaña had a breakout year. The crowning moment came in December in the MLS Cup final, when he locked down Columbus Crew SC midfielder Ethan Finlay in a crucial one-v-one matchup that helped decide the match.
Like just about everything else in Villafaña’s career, he barely had time to appreciate his first championship. There was more coming. He was on the brink of living another dream.
“I didn’t even have time to celebrate the championship over there in Portland with my friends and my fellow teammates,” he says. “We [won the championship] on Sunday and then on Wednesday I was already in Mexico and working things out with [Santos Laguna].
The Timbers won MLS Cup on December 6. Five days later, Portland had sold their left back to Liga MX’s Santos Laguna for a transfer fee reported to be just under $1 million, according to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl. One month later, Villafaña went the full 90 in Santos’ season opener.
“One of my dreams was to play in the Liga MX and I’m doing it right now, so I’m really happy,” he says. “I’m still excited that I’m here in Mexico, and more that I’m playing for a big club that is always fighting for trophies.”
SO WHAT'S THE NEXT DREAM FOR SUEÑO TO LIVE?
A CONCACAF Champions League title shot barely slipped away from Santos Laguna when eventual champions Club América found extra-time winner to move onto the final. Los Guerreros are very much in the race for another championship, standing fifth in the Clausura standings with one game remaining before the playoffs begin.
Just being at Santos, where Villafaña has fought off competition from Mexico international Adrian Aldrete, is an accomplishment for the now 26-year-old.
The next frontier for Villafaña, even if he doesn’t finish a second straight season with a domestic trophy, is a call-up to the US national team. The last time he represented his country came under Porter, when the U-23s failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2012.
With left back a nagging position of need for the American side, a call-up could be coming soon. Villafaña certainly hopes so. Though he didn’t make Jurgen Klinsmann’s 40-man provisional roster for Copa America Centenario, ESPN’s Taylor Twellman reported Villafaña could force his way into the team following this summer’s tournament
I have been told Villafana is on the "close radar" of Klinsmann and his staff for after Copa America. #USMNT— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) May 2, 2016
“Every player always wants to get that call from the national team. I’m pretty excited and I’m always working toward that goal of getting a call-up, whether it’s this month or next month,” says Villafaña, who also has the option of filing for a one-time switch to Mexico should El Tri come calling. “… I’m waiting for it. I’m waiting for that call.”
Perhaps that’s the funny twist in Villafaña’s fairytale story. Nearly 10 years after fate launched him along this path, Sueño must once again wait, with no guarantees, to fulfill a dream.
Meanwhile, back in the Southern California, another round of Sueño MLS finalists will gather at StubHub Center on Wednesday with their own dreams on the line. Will one of them be the next Villafaña? There’s only one way to find out.
“They should take this opportunity with everything they have because it can change your life in a good way,” Villafaña says. “… You have to grab it.”
Oh, and it’s probably a good idea to register in advance.