David Villa Rises to a Moment He Created

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

By CHRISTIAN ARAOS

NYCFC logoBack in the days when the topic of Yankee Stadium’s suitability for soccer was fresh, the need for a second team in New York was questioned and the idea of 30,000 people watching Major League Soccer in the Northeast was laughable, David Villa signed with New York City FC.

More than two years of a wonderful marriage between player and expansion team had yet to be consummated with soccer’s most celebrated individual feat: the hat-trick. Villa won the Most Valuable Player award last year, has seized the moment many times during his time in MLS and has scored in the Hudson River Derby before Sunday’s virtuoso performance. But what made Sunday night different was convergence.

The 7-0 loss to the Red Bulls was only a year ago, the 5-1 loss at the Los Angeles Galaxy only two. During that game, there was a moment where Villa, alone, implored his teammates to push forward and they never did. He was isolated and alone, closer to regret and escape than pride and admiration. Though he was offered an escape route on more than one occasion, Villa stayed and when he pushed his teammates Sunday night, they followed.

“I try to show every young player that I arrived where I arrived because I give 110 percent on the pitch,” Villa said as his daughter pulled at his leg. “You can play well today and score three goals or bad like the other day against Toronto, but it’s mandatory to give 100 percent and I try to do that. If they call me a leader, it’s a pleasure to me that they see me like that.”

Like Villa, Khiry Shelton has been with NYCFC since 2015. Shelton is on the opposite end of the arc: no World Cups, no Champions Leagues, no children. Yet they shared the locker room and shared the field Sunday working off one another as City rallied to reverse a 2-1 deficit.

“I’ve been here since the beginning with him and he gives 110 percent every single time,” Shelton said. “That’s not just on the field but off the field, too. If he’s trying to get stuff done, he’s going to do it with a full head and he’s going to attack you. He’s able to do it on the field as well and it’s impressed on me and the rest of the team that he’s going to do anything for them and it inspires me to do the same.”

Villa has said in the past that he learned his work ethic and humility from his father, a coal miner in Spain. He downplays his feats focusing not on the moments of individual heroism but on the team and its current place, making his statements appear plain-vanilla when they are in reality full of flavor from a life’s experience. It’s that ethos that Coach Patrick Vieira recognizes when he said that Villa is the team’s leader.

“He’s our leader when he’s performing like that — that lifts the team and players are behind him and follow him,” Vieira said. “So when David is playing very well, the team is playing well. And today was David.”

Villa, always celebrated as an attacker, is a defender in his mind. His positioning has always allowed him to disrupt opposition play from the back, something that made him such an integral part to Pep Guardiola‘s Barcelona and that awareness left him well positioned to run onto a deflected pass and round Luis Robles to score his first goal.

Don’t get it twisted though. Villa can still run at defenders with as much force as he did in La Liga and Aaron Long was the latest MLS defender to be left standing as Villa fooled Robles and finished near post.

“In this situation, you need to think so fast and the best thing was to go to the left and shoot with the left,” Villa said. “I saw that Long followed the ball and blocked me very well and he did very well so I needed to do the other side and I took advantage.”

But at that point, Villa had only done something that happened twelve times before. A Villabrace is as common to NYCFC as Pigeons, baseball fields or disappointment against the Red Bulls. Instead, a ball bounced behind the defense and Villa leaned his head to it only to have it meet Sal Zizzo‘s foot. The $6 million designated player fell to the ground but earned the penalty. He fooled Robles again sending him the wrong way and then slid in front of the Third Rail as the stadium roared and the lights flickered.

When Mikey Lopez came on as a defensive substitute during stoppage time, the stadium rose to applaud the man who has been there from Day 1. Once the final whistle sounded he leapt into Vieira and the two embraced. The moment was their’s as New York City won the season series for the first time and allowed themselves to say for the night that they were a big team. Vieira said he will drill his players even harder knowing that consistency is what will make moments like Sunday more frequent.

But Sunday’s moment was one in which New York City celebrated its ascent from the pits of embarrassment and farce. When Tuesday comes, City and Villa will look to secure a foothold and continue the climb.