David Villa's supernatural ability and unmatched effort have him atop MLS
David Villa does not need to be working this hard. No one would blame the man who's won pretty much everything there is to win -- a World Cup, a European championship, multiple La Liga titles, the Champions League -- and sits as the Spanish national team's all-time leading goal scorer for taking a play off during a random midsummer game. But instead, there's Villa, sprinting back into the defensive third to make a tackle, helping down-a-man New York City FC preserve a 2-1 lead against the Chicago Fire.
For Villa, the son of a coal miner, the extreme level of effort isn't extraordinary. It's simply how he's supposed to act.
"I don't know if I'm a talisman [for NYCFC]," says Villa, who was voted as the best player in MLS by a panel of ESPN FC experts. "I try to do my best every day always for the team, for the club. This is my job."
But his teammates see the work the $6 million dollar man puts in, not just on game day but in training, too, and they are as surprised as they are inspired.
"It could be so easy for him to lay back toward the end of his career and settle, but he keeps pushing himself, creating new boundaries," NYCFC midfielder Jack Harrison says of his 35-year-old teammate. "He works so hard. He's so passionate."
Midfielder Rodney Wallace agrees: "Every single training matters. Every ball matters. Every minute. He's a very competitive guy. It's contagious to see him working the hardest in training. You have to step your game up. He keeps the whole team ticking."
So does defender Maxime Chanot. "When you've won everything and you get to that age, sometimes motivation can go down," he says. "Not with David. You can see it during his last two seasons in MLS where he's shown he's the best player in the league. We see it every day in training."
When director of football operations Claudio Reyna and the rest of the NYCFC front office went searching for players to create the ethos of the club, Villa was the first man they recruited. They knew about the goals he scored -- 59 in 97 caps for the Spanish national team, more than 200 in La Liga -- but they didn't know if he'd bring the passion, the dedication, the intensity.
The list of aging European stars who signed big-money deals with Major League Soccer only to mail it in when they arrived is quite a bit longer than the list of success stories. But Villa impressed Reyna & Co. immediately.
"You saw that fire and focus in his eye," Reyna says. "It was real."
Two and a half years later, it's clear they made a good choice. Villa has managed 55 goals in just 83 games, including some stunners, and a rare match goes by when he's not one of the best players on the field. He's rapidly rising on the ranking of all-time best designated player signings, arguably behind only Robbie Keane and his deformed cartwheels at this point.
While Villa will never be the biggest personality in the room -- even on his own team, he's outshined by the flowing locks of Andrea Pirlo -- he's been the perfect player for what Patrick Vieira is creating in the Bronx. "It's not just the fact that he's playing well," the NYCFC head coach says. "It's the way that he's conducted himself on the field. The example that he is for the young players."
Twenty-year-old Harrison, the first pick of the 2016 SuperDraft, benefits from seeing the World Cup winner day in, day out. "I learned more just by watching him, his movements off the ball," he says. "How he creates space for himself. That's something I picked up last season. When I was out injured, I'd just watch him. I'd watch every little thing that he did on the field."
Villa's ability, combined with his effort, lead the way for a squad that has improved dramatically in each of the past three years and should challenge for the MLS Cup this season.
"He travels in coach class and never complains," Reyna says of his star. "He puts his head down and works. His humility, combined with his tenacity, has put his stamp on the team. From the beginning it was important to create that culture and that mentality. Now, a lot of what we're about is because of that attitude." (There are limits, of course. When I asked Reyna if Villa beat him to the office, he smiled, paused, then said no.)
Villa seems to love playing in New York City, inspired by the energy and diversity of the place. He's adapting to living in the U.S. and its sporting culture, saying he likes the playoff format in MLS because anyone who makes the postseason has a chance to win the title, rather than just three or four like in La Liga and other European leagues. He laughs when told that his attitude sounds very American. Villa is fitting in just fine.
In May, he extended his contract through the end of the 2018 season. He'll turn 37 that December, not ancient for a man but certainly very old for a footballer. All those sprints back into the defensive third take their toll, eventually. At some point, he'll have to walk away, ready for the next challenge.
Until then, however, he'll keep running, keep scoring, keep improving. It's all Villa knows how to do.
"This beautiful sport has a lot of good things, but one of the beautiful things is that in soccer, you can learn every day until you're retired," he says. "And I try to do this."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.