The past two years have been a whirlwind for U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team forward Jose Villarreal.
From a U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship, to scoring his first professional goal in Major League Soccer, to now representing the U.S. with the hopes of advancing to the FIFA U-20 World Cup, Villarreal has been a true product of the youth soccer system.
The same can be said for many players on the U.S. U-20 MNT, which is preparing for its second group match on Friday against Costa Rica in the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
“You’re seeing a lot of players signed as homegrown players like Wil Trapp, Shane O’Neill, Dillon Serna, and clubs are looking at the talent there is in the Academy,” Villarreal said. “The Academy is growing each year and it’s getting bigger and better. The competition is definitely getting better and the talent is there. It’s just a matter of how teams are using it.”
Villarreal references his move to Pateadores as one of the biggest turning points in his soccer career. His previous club coach took over the U-17/18 Pateadores side and brought several players with him – including Villarreal – to the team.
During the 2010-11 Development Academy season, the stars aligned as Pateadores won the U-17/18 Academy crown.
“We had an extremely good season with the Pats,” Villarreal said. “We went to the Finals and ever since then my life changed. I got called into the U-18s for the Milk Cup, I started training with the LA Galaxy Academy, and about three or four months in I was talking with now-president Chris Klein, who at the time was the Galaxy’s technical director.”
Villarreal scored both Pateadores goals in the 2010-11 Academy Final for a 2-1 victory against FC Dallas. Current U-20 MNT teammates Danny Garcia and Boyd “OC” Okwuonu were on the runner-up side with FC Dallas.
“It’s funny because two weeks after the Final, I flew to Ireland with the U-18s and obviously OC was there,” Villarreal said. “There was a play during the game after I scored the second goal where he tackled me. It was a bad tackle and I had to step out of the game with about two minutes left. In Ireland, OC said, ‘I’m sorry about the tackle. I was just so mad that you scored both goals on us.’ That was funny, and we’re good friends now. We bring it up every now and then and get a laugh.”
That accomplishment set the stage for a memorable 2012 that included his first MLS game against the Portland Timbers, followed by a memorable equalizer on the road against the Vancouver Whitecaps for his first goal as the LA Galaxy went on to win its fourth MLS Cup.
“It’s been crazy,” Villarreal said. “It’s probably been the best time of my life soccer-wise. The atmosphere for my debut was awesome, and I was a little nervous because it was my first game. The guys teased me: ‘You had a good 30 seconds.’ Then to travel to Vancouver and score that goal was just amazing to be able to help the team like that. After that, we picked it up, made a run and we won it all.”
MLS is in preseason mode, but Villarreal is putting all of his focus with the U-20s, coached under National Soccer Hall of Famer Tab Ramos.
For Villarreal, the experience of Ramos’ guidance has been one that he can relate to closely as a player.
“He obviously knows a lot about soccer and he’s played at the highest level,” Villarreal said. “He’s one of the top players ever in U.S. Soccer history. Playing that offensive role, that attacking midfield role, we kind of have the same mentality. He gives me tips and gives me things I can do and guides our talent.”
Villarreal’s guidance and development from the Academy ranks certainly is being put to the test with all eyes on the USA’s bid for a World Cup spot. For many players who have gone through this similar progression, their professional and international futures look bright.
“The Academy is definitely a good starting point for any player who wants to get to the high professional level,” Villarreal said. “It’s very competitive and there are a lot of good players. During the time I was there, I felt like I was ready to make the transition to the next level.”