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Villafaña’s first U.S. National Team cap milestone in remarkable career

Anaheim native “honored” to represent USMNT.

MLS: CONCACAF Champions League-Santos Laguna at LA Galaxy
Villafaña in action for Santos Laguna.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There are few times when a player has as many people rooting for him as Jorge Villafaña did on Sunday.

The Santos Laguna defender, 10 years into his professional career, earned his first career U.S. Men’s National Team cap close to home, as he entered as a second-half substitute in the USMNT’s 0-0 draw against Serbia at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.

After the game, Villafaña noted a large contingent of family and friends saw him make his debut.

“All of them were here, some of my friends from high school were here, too, so I got a lot of texts and messages from them that they were really happy to see me,” he told reporters.

If you’re a hardcore American soccer fan, you probably know Villafaña’s story, but it bears repeating: He was the inaugural winner of Sueño MLS in 2007, a reality television program where unknown players had an opportunity to try out and possibly even join an MLS team. In 2007, the MLS team was Chivas USA, and the Anaheim-born Mexican American signed a deal after the show as a 17-year-old.

The longest-tenured player in Chivas USA history, Villafaña mostly played as a wide midfielder for a series of head coaches over the years, and was traded to the Portland Timbers ahead of the 2014 season. Moved to defense, he became a top left back in MLS while with the Timbers, capped off with a terrific performance in Portland’s 2015 MLS Cup final victory.

Following that game, he was sold to Santos Laguna, a consistently good team in Liga MX, for a transfer fee reported to be about $1 million.

In the process, Villafaña has gone from a legend in his own household, to one for Chivas USA fans, to all MLS fans, and now, apparently U.S. Men’s National Team fans, too.

For a player who seems like the ultimate underdog, the link to his gradual rise over the year and his nickname, Sueño (dream), means the headlines essentially write themselves.

But he’s a real person, and getting a chance to represent his country was “an honor,” as he put it.

“I think every person that represents his country, he should be honored. I’m just very happy and grateful for this opportunity that coach Bruce [Arena] has given to me.”

The ascent of his career has not been without setbacks, and Villafaña is going through a struggle of sorts at the moment, looking for regular playing time at Santos and the only Liga MX player granted leave to go to the USMNT camp while the season is underway.

While he sounded open to a return to MLS at some point, he indicated a desire to fight for his place at Santos Laguna — “I still want to prove myself, that I can still finish my contract over there...At this point I’m focusing on Santos.”

Sueño may be his nickname, but Villafaña didn’t get this far without fighting for every opportunity in his career, so you would expect nothing less.

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