Jorge Villafana on life in Liga MX with Santos Laguna and his MLS past
Mexican-American Jorge Villafana is already thriving in his short time in Liga MX. After nine seasons in Major League Soccer with Chivas USA and the Portland Timbers, the defender recently took a significant step in his career and signed with Santos Laguna in December of 2015.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN FC, the 26-year-old opened up about his time with Santos, his early life and the upcoming CONCACAF Champions League series against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
ESPN FC: You've already become a key player for Santos Laguna. Give us some general impressions of how your time has been with the club since you've arrived in Mexico.
Jorge Villafana: Yeah, it's been fun. It hasn't been easy either, but I'm enjoying it right now and the team has been doing well so I'm happy here, happy to be playing with Santos. I'm having a great time now that I'm playing, so I'm enjoying it even more.
ESPN FC: Tell us about [growing up in] Guanajuato and your experience. I've read that you and your mother moved south of the border when you were very young.
Villafana: I was there when I was little, I still have family in Guanajuato. I still go over there, I have a lot of cousins, uncles...it's really nice to have people here who you can visit or they can come and visit you.
ESPN FC: Did you play in any youth teams in Mexico or any leagues? Was it mostly with family and friends?
Villafana: It was mostly on the streets with my friends and my cousins, I didn't play with any clubs in Mexico. My first [professional] club was Chivas USA, but out here in Mexico I usually just played on the streets.
ESPN FC: What circumstances led to you moving back to the U.S.?
Villafana: I just wanted to be with my family over there, with my mom. I just wanted to go to school over there, maybe find a job. But, uh, [laughs] it happened, I went, and I got to be a professional soccer player.
ESPN FC: You mentioned your first club was Chivas USA, but at the high school level, did you stand out in soccer? Did you dream of becoming a pro or did you have other plans?
Villafana: I always dreamed about being a professional soccer player. I didn't know if it was going to be a reality, but it happened. I remember playing in high school with my club, over there in Anaheim. The [Los Angeles] Galaxy and Chivas USA used to go and watch the games. So, that was easy when I went to the tryouts, they already knew who was who. That was an advantage that I had from some of the people from Chivas USA, they already knew who I was.
ESPN FC: Now that you've played in both leagues, what are some big differences and some similarities that you've seen from MLS and the Liga MX?
Villafana: I think in MLS the game is a little bit faster, more physical, more direct and in Liga MX I think it's more tactical. You choose what time to attack, when the gap is open, that's when you attack. I think those are the differences that I found when I first came here to Mexico.
ESPN FC: Do you think there is going to be this continuing trend of MLS players going to Mexico?
Villafana: Yeah, I think it will continue. I think there's good talent in MLS, and now Liga MX has been looking to MLS.
ESPN FC: Did Portland make any offers to keep you?
Villafana: They [Portland] talked to me and said it was a good offer [from Santos]. They knew it was going to be a good opportunity for me too and for my family as well, so they let me choose.
ESPN FC: How has the squad reacted to you replacing Adrian Aldrete, who was a standout for Mexico at the Copa America?
Villafana: I came here to win a spot and when they gave me an opportunity, I had to take advantage of it because it's not easy when you come from another country, another league. You know you have to win your spot. The coach gave me an opportunity and I had to take advantage of that. I have to work harder because there are a lot of good players in every position -- not just in mine, but in every position that we have.
ESPN FC: You've played against the Galaxy multiple times. Have you advised [head coach] Luis Zubeldia on what to expect from the Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League?
Villafana: I think they have a lot of good players, big players. Some of the players I know them, so I already know how they play. He [Zubeldia] asked me how they looked and I told him that they are still definitely in preseason and that we already started our season. So we have a little bit of an advantage with that, but they have a brand new team, so we'll see. We know it's not going to be easy, but we are already in our competition so we are already ahead of them.
ESPN FC: What's it going to be like for you, as a Mexican-American, to be going up against someone like Giovani dos Santos?
Villafana: It's always nice to play against big players and you always want to stand out and have a good performance. Like I said, it's not going to be easy, but we have a pretty good team and we know that we can get a win, and I am also really happy to be going back to L.A. to see family and friends.
ESPN FC: It's a big year for El Tri and the U.S. men's national team. Have you been in contact with either side?
Villafana: No I haven't been in contact. Right now, I'm just focusing on Santos and having a good season and we'll see in the future. If it comes, I'll be really happy, but right now I'm concentrating on the club.
ESPN FC: When you were growing up, was there a side that you tended to root for, more so one than the other? Mexico or the United States?
Villafana: I grew up in Mexico and I was here until I was 15. Then I decided to go over there [United States] and played for the U.S. U20 and U23s. We'll see... But if I get a call-up it's going to be from the U.S. [laughs]. But like I said, I'm just working with Santos and we'll see in the future what happens.
ESPN FC: You almost fell through the cracks of American soccer. You said Chivas USA was your first team, but that was because you won the Sueno MLS competition. What would you be doing right now, if it wasn't for soccer?
Villafana: I don't know, probably working. I don't know, that's a really hard question [laughs].... Because I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't been a professional soccer player. I haven't thought of that question, it's hard to not see me being a professional soccer player.
ESPN FC: Will we see Jorge Villafaaa at the 2018 World Cup?
Villafana: Yeah, that's one of the plans, that's what every player dreams about, a World Cup. I hope that I get a call-up and take advantage of it and I'll be really happy if I'm in the 2018 World Cup.
Cesar Hernandez covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @cesarhfutbol.