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Jorge Villafaña creates his own luck over a long career that now includes the Galaxy

The LA Times logo The LA Times 2/26/2021 Kevin Baxter
Jorge Villafaña with a football ball on a field: Defender Jorge Villafana follows a play during the second half on July 13, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press) © Provided by The LA Times Defender Jorge Villafana follows a play during the second half on July 13, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Jorge Villafaña says no one calls him sueño anymore. Which is too bad because the nickname, inspired by the TV talent show "Sueño MLS," fits a soccer career that has truly been a dream.

It started when Villafaña, then known as Jorge Flores, bested more than 2,000 other contestants to win a tryout with an MLS team, leading to a 14-year journey that saw him win four trophies in two countries and make 21 appearances with the U.S. national team.

And now, in what could be the final chapter of that story, he is home coming to play with the Galaxy. So while both the show and his first team, Chivas USA, have long since been canceled, the sueño continues.

“Maybe it could have taken another journey,” Villafaña said of his career path. “I don’t know what would have happened. I never imagined that two years after coming from Mexico, in high school, trying out and three months later signing a contract and being a pro.

“I guess it took me by surprise.”

The same can’t be said of this winter’s trade, which sent Villafaña from the Portland Timbers back to Dignity Health Sports Park, where his career began when the stadium had a different name and the Galaxy shared it Chivas USA.

When the Timbers informed Villafaña, an Anaheim native, they wanted to move his salary — which topped $600,000 in 2019, the last year for which figures are available — he said he wanted to return to Southern California.

“I told them I would be happy to go back to L.A. But if it wasn’t going to happen, I didn’t want to leave Portland,” said Villafaña, who renegotiated a multiyear deal with the Galaxy.

It wasn’t a hard sell since the Galaxy’s general manager, Dennis te Kloese, was the same man who recruited Villafaña during that TV show more than a decade ago.

“I've always followed his footsteps out of pure interest,” Te Kloese said. “When in January we started speaking about possible players for the team, his name came up. It made a lot of sense for us to fill that position with somebody local, that doesn't take up a foreign slot, that has earned his stripes through the years and can give something to our younger players in a good way with the character and the professionalism he's acquired over the years.”

For Villafaña, the fact the guy who gave him his first chance at 17 was also in position to give him another one at 31 is proof his lucky rabbit’s foot still works.

“It always helps to have those connections everywhere in life. You always have to have people around you,” Villafaña said as he balanced 4-year-old son, the youngest of his three children, on his knee in the Manhattan Beach hotel room that has become his family’s temporary home.

“In soccer I don’t think it depends on that so much. It depends on how good you are, if you can still provide for the club,” he continued. “I’ve been taking care of myself. I can give a lot to the club.”

a man with a football ball: Defender Jorge Villafana, left, and New York City midfielder Gary Mackay-Steven battle for the ball during the second half on Aug. 1, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. (John Raoux / Associated Press) © (John Raoux / Associated Press) Defender Jorge Villafana, left, and New York City midfielder Gary Mackay-Steven battle for the ball during the second half on Aug. 1, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. (John Raoux / Associated Press)

He’ll certainly be given a chance to prove it because he’ll enter training camp Monday as the starter at left back, replacing Emiliano Insúa, the former Liverpool defender the Galaxy elected not to re-sign. But while talent has certainly played a huge part in Villafaña’s career, good fortune has never been far behind.

It was his talent, for example, that made him a starter with Chivas USA when he was still a teenager. But it was his good fortune that led Caleb Porter, Villafaña’s former youth national team coach, to trade for him after his first season as manager of the Portland Timbers.

It was a stroke of luck that literally changed his life because Chivas USA folded 10 months later while Portland, with Villafaña leading all outfield players in minutes, won its only MLS Cup in his second season.

“It could have been completely different if I never had that opportunity to go to Portland,” he said.

After the season Portland sold him to Santos Laguna of Mexico’s Liga MX. For Villafaña, who grew up in Mexico, that proved another break when Santos won the 2018 Clausura crown, its first title in six seasons. He also got his first call-up to the senior national team while with Santos, playing his first competitive game for the U.S. in a 2017 World Cup qualifier.

He also started the last competitive game for the U.S. that year, the 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago that knocked the team out of the World Cup and cost Villafaña a chance to play on the sport’s biggest stage.

“I’m never going to forget about that,” Villafaña said of the one time the magic left his lucky rabbit’s foot, briefly turning his sueño into a nightmare. “But life goes on and you have to focus on what’s next.”

For Villafaña, that meant a return to Portland, another MLS Cup final and a win in last summer’s MLS Is Back tournament. And now, as luck would have it, his career has come full circle, bringing him back to the stadium where he made his MLS debut 14 years ago.

“He's taken the opportunities. That speaks highly of him. And hopefully it'll be good for us,” said Te Kloese, who added he now values Villafaña’s experience and leadership skills as much as he once did his work rate and left-footed crosses.

“It wouldn't be in his character to not take advantage of the opportunity to be here and be close to his family and show off what he what he's learned,” he said.

Speaking of opportunities, Villafaña dropped Flores, the name of a father he never knew, for his mother Juanita’s name a decade ago as a Christmas present to honor the woman who raised him. Now Juanita, who still lives in Anaheim, will be able to see her namesake play in person again.

And when her son leaves his South Bay hotel room for a house in Orange County — he says he’s looking — she’ll finally be able to spend quality time with her grandchildren as well. That, too, was a factor in last month’s trade.

“I was real lucky,” Villafaña said.

Call it a sueño come true.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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