Photo by Dave Bernal/ISIPhotos.com
BY KAYLA KNAPP
CARSON, Calif.—It has been a wild eight months for rookie Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Jose Villarreal.
Since signing a Homegrown contract at the end of 2011, the 18-year-old California native has spent the majority of his playing time in the reserve league, but lately, that has been changing.
Villarreal made his debut with the first team on July 14th in the final minute of the match. It was just a taste of what was to come for the young striker.
In his second appearance for LA on July 18th against Vancouver Whitecaps, Villarreal scored his first goal for the Galaxy in the 85th minute—but this wasn’t just a goal. This was a late, game-tying goal that stole a crucial point for LA as they made their run up the standings to a playoff position.
Villarreal only needed two games—and in reality, less than 10 first team minutes—to make an impact. But he hasn’t stopped there. He has made an appearance in five of the last six league games, and whether it’s a few minutes or 30, the teenager has provided a spark for LA.
“He’s crafty, he’s a gamer and he’s a young kid that doesn’t know any better and that’s great because he’s confident and he’s playing well and he’s dangerous,” defender Todd Dunivant said of Villarreal. “He’s holding the ball up, not just doing the obvious things like scoring goals, he’s doing the little things and that’s huge for us.”
While he has clearly made an impact when given the opportunity, Villarreal knows his minutes on the pitch are precious.
”When Bruce gives me the chance to play, I just do my thing and try to help out as much as possible,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, Villarreal was given one of those chances with about 30 minutes to play in a tough battle against FC Dallas, with the score still level at 0-0. Neither side had been able to break through, and LA needed that offensive spark to get past a strong Dallas defense.
And yet again, less than ten minutes after coming onto the pitch, Villarreal made a game-changing play.
In the 66th minute, FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges took just a little too long to get his pass off, and Villarreal stripped him of the ball. Dallas keeper Kevin Hartman was forced to come way off his line to try to stop him, but Villarreal went past him with ease, and found Juninho wide open in the middle of the box, and the Brazilian finished calmly into the back of the net.
“I managed to pressure him [Hedges] pretty hard and it bounced off my foot and I took a touch right by the keeper and I saw Juninho in the open and I just passed it him,” Villarreal said of his assist after the game. “Obviously, the nerves kick in, but you need to be focused and finish the play.”
That goal broke the deadlock, and gave LA a 1-0 lead. The Galaxy would go on to win 2-0, with defender Todd Dunivant adding the second, but it was the opening goal, assisted by Villarreal that made the difference.
“He came with a lot of energy, he’s proven right now that he’s a kid that has a lot of talent, and he came in, changed the game,” Juninho said of Villarreal after the match.
“Jose was outstanding. A really alert play that helped set up the first goal,” head coach Bruce Arena said of Villarreal’s heads-up move that lead to the eventual game-winner.
Even Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman had praise for the teenager.
“He’s very active. He’s got a desire to get forward…he brought a lot of energy, and at that point in time, were trying to get a goal,” Hyndman said.
As LA’s focus shifts to their midweek CONCACAF Champions League match against the Puerto Rico Islanders, there is the potential for Villarreal to see even more minutes. Robbie Keane is suspended because of his red card in the Galaxy’s previous CCL match, and Landon Donovan’s status is up in the air as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury.
“It’s unfortunate about Landon and Robbie, they’re two players that we need out there on the field but if they’re not available then other players need to step up and do the work,” Villarreal said.
Wednesday’s CCL match would be a good opportunity to see Villarreal get more first team minutes. But regardless of whether that happens, one thing is clear: he is making his mark on this team, his coaches and teammates are excited by his potential, and Villarreal seems like he is enjoying this new role.
“My teammates are always in the back of me and supporting me and that makes me a lot more comfortable when I step on the pitch and I’m able to do what I do best and help out the team," Villarreal said after Sunday’s win. "I grew up here, I always came to watch the games when I was small, so now that I have a chance to play here…I think I belong here."