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Global Mar 22, 2012

Spreading El Sueño: U.S. U-23 defender Jorge Villafaña on dreams, identity, Latinos in U.S. system

By Charles Boehm

The U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team officially kicks off its quest for a place in the 2012 London Summer Olympics tonight, and while this year’s squad of young Yanks is being touted as perhaps the most talented and experienced ever, many U.S. fans probably still have to conduct a bit of Googling to remind themselves who defender Jorge Villafaña is.

Part of that is due to simple nomenclature: Villafaña went by Jorge Flores when he first popped into the public eye five years ago, the debut winner of a reality TV show called “Sueño MLS” (Sueño means “dream” in Spanish and it soon became his nickname, too) in which he rose to the top of a field of 2,000 applicants to earn a tryout with MLS club Chivas USA.

Widely perceived as something of a gimmick at the start, “Sueño MLS” helped the Mexican-American teenager from Anaheim, Calif. earn a professional contract with Chivas USA, where he proved he was much more than a publicity stunt, developing his game dramatically and eventually starting 24 matches in 2011.

He also caught the attention of U.S. National team coaches, and in 2008 saw more playing time with the U.S. U-20 team than any other player, though his progress has been somewhat obscured by the fact that he legally changed his last name to Villafaña last year, taking his mother Juanita’s family name in tribute to her primary role in his upbringing.

Now his unlikely ascent continues as a member of the U.S. U-23 squad which opens the group stage of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament in Nashville, Tenn. with match against Cuba (9 p.m. ET, broadcast live on Universal Sports Network and, the second half of a doubleheader at LP Field also featuring El Salvador vs. Canada.

“Yeah, you know, a lot of these guys come from IMG [U.S. Soccer’s prestigious residential program at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla.] or the [MLS] academies, or the colleges,” noted Villafaña in an exclusive conversation with The Soccer Wire during the U-23s’ training camp last month. “For me in particular, the way to come was from Sueño MLS, and I think I’ve worked my way here. I’ve proved myself and proved to my coaches here and at my club team that I’m a real soccer player. I know what I do and what I do best, and they’ve seen it, and that’s why I’m here.

“I’m happy to be here – this opportunity is once in a lifetime. I’m just enjoying every training, every game, and putting in my best.”

U.S. Under-23 Men's National teamer Jorge Villafaña

The American soccer subculture is a dizzyingly diverse place populated by fans, players and coaches from just about every regional, ethnic and expatriate group in the nation, yet the antiquated perception that it’s a game for the coddled children of wealthy – and usually white – suburban soccer moms persists.

The country’s burgeoning Latino population contributes a massive number of those who play and follow the sport the most passionately. Their numbers were under-represented on national team rosters for many years, however, as the youth soccer establishment often struggled to connect with Latino players and their families, much less identify and groom those capable of representing the U.S. at international level.

While obstacles remain, that picture seems to be changing as players like Villafaña find themselves with more opportunities to prove themselves.

“Yeah, there’s lot of Latinos in the United States, good young players,” he said. “I think the preparation of the player, how you adapt to the team, I think you have to do it by being engaged in the game every time you come to practice, give your best. That’s how you’re going to be noticed and get playing time.”

Villafaña sees progress at the pro level, where MLS clubs are investing in youth academies and identification programs, and in some cases even entrusting young Hispanic players with important playmaking roles once seen as the province of expensive foreign veterans.

Toronto FC drafted of his former youth teammates, Cal-Santa Barbara product Luis Silva, in the first round of this year’s MLS SuperDraft and stuck him right into action in this month’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal showdown with the L.A. Galaxy. Silva chipped in a timely goal to help TFC upset the heavily-favored Galaxy and Villafaña predicts more such stories in the years ahead.

“No, I think what they’re doing right now – it’s a young league, you know, it’s not a big league, but it’s growing now and a lot of young players are starting to show up – like I saw the draft, there’s a few Latino players that got picked up. Like Silva, he went to Toronto. I knew him, he played with me in the youth academy with Chivas USA.

“I’m happy to see that some of my teammates that I played with when I was younger, they’re signing with MLS…They’re starting to come out and it’s not going to be long before we start seeing more Latinos.”

A left-footed player with an eye for goal, Villafaña has spent most of his time with the U-23s in a more defensive mindset. Coach Caleb Porter’s wealth of attacking options led him to task Villafaña as a left back, a position without a set-in-stone starter where he may yet earn minutes in Olympic qualifying despite teammate Zarek Valentin being penciled in at the top of the depth chart.

“Right now I’m playing left back. Wherever they put me, I’m ready to show them that I’m going to do my best and just work hard for my team,” said Villafaña. “I think the position on the left side is still undecided and I’m getting the hang of it. I’m feeling pretty confident and we’ll just see – it’s the coach’s decision.”

His own childhood – part of which was spent in Guanajuato, Mexico – could easily have complicated his decision to don the U.S. colors, as it does for many rising Mexican-American talents. But he says he never thought twice about it, despite the fact that most of his friends and family support El Tri, the old country’s beloved national team.

“I didn’t have doubts because my family’s Mexican, [but] I was born here in the U.S. and I started my career playing with Chivas USA. They followed me since the U-19s,” said Villafaña. “I feel proud to wear the U.S. uniform and when it comes to play, I give my 100 percent.

“It’s both ways,” he added, laughing when asked about his friends’ allegiances. “They’re happy for me, because I played with them – my family too, they’re happy for me that I’m playing with the U.S. and [possibly] going to the Olympics. But in the other part, they’re from other countries, they’re from Mexico, and they still have their heart for Mexico. But they always supported me and they’re always going to support me.”

[ +View Villafaña’s U.S. Soccer profile page here ]