Jorge Villafaña, Timbers vs. FC Dallas, 11.22.15
Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

Villafaña returns: 2018 realities bring a 2015 hero back to the Rose City

PORTLAND, Ore. – The last time he came up on this site was in February: not February 2014, when he was going through his first preseason with the Portland Timbers; and not February 2016, after he’d been sold to Liga MX’s Santos Laguna two months before. No, it hasn’t been that long since Jorge Villafaña was relevant on this web site.

“If we had been in today’s era, with today’s rules, we would have been able to hang on to (Fanendo) Adi and Maxi Urruti,” Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson said six months ago, about MLS’ Targeted Allocation Money phase, after the club had acquired Samuel Armenteros. “We would have been able to hang onto Jorge Villafaña, Rodney Wallace – all of those guys. If we had the current amount of TAM money available, then Maxi would still be at this club.”

Now, one of those mainstays of the team’s 2015 title-winning squad is back. As of this afternoon, Villafaña – a 28-year-old, 19-time U.S. international who has spent the last two-and-a-half years in Torreón, Mexico – has returned to Portland, his former team trading up in Major League Soccer’s player allocation order for the rights to sign him from Santos.

“It took a lot of work for Gavin to get this done,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese explained, speaking about Villafaña’s return. “Big credit to [Wilkinson], because he was able to get this done in a very short amount of time.”

There is so much about this acquisition that’s very 2018 Timbers. Did the team need an upgrade at left back? No, not necessarily, and to be fair, it’s not entirely clear, yet, that Villafaña is one. Still, it’s unlikely Wilkinson and Savarese brought in a new player with TAM resources thinking he’d merely slot in behind Zarek Valentin, Villafaña’s teammate at Chivas USA in 2011. Villafaña left the Rose City as a starter, made 57 starts with Santos, and will be expected to push for Portland’s starting role.

But just as everything else with the Timbers’ squad – one where position battles have, at one time or another, taken place through more than half the lineup -- time will have to be earned on the field. And on that field, Valentin has been very good. Yet in a Major League Soccer world where you’re either moving forward or being left behind, the chance to bring back a player like Villafaña can’t be passed up. There’s no doubt acquiring a proven U.S. international makes Portland a better squad.

“Villafaña is a player that has grown so much, especially since has been able to be in the national team,” Savarese explained. “He’s one that has definitely, in these past few years, improved his game, and I think he’ll also bring a different quality to the team that will give us more options.”

Beyond his quality, Villafaña provides an entirely different dimension, stylistically. As the Timbers’ attack has evolved under Savarese, the team has been freeing up their right flank so Alvas Powell, from his right back position, to be the team’s wide threat. On the left, Portland has played more of a possession game, adjusting their shape and movement around the idea that Valentin’s strengths lie in other areas. He’s solid on the ball, tactically astute and, as we’ve increasingly seen with his movement, able to get high or into midfield when the Timbers try to pass through opponents.

Villafaña is a little more Powell than Valentin, even if he can exist in both worlds. He’s a player that allows you to pinch others in from that left side, knowing you’ve got a player who can have an end-line-to-end-line impact. The same way the Timbers have come to use Powell down the right, they can try to use Villafaña down the left, and while the two are far from being identical players, the similarities give Savarese new options.

“He knows the environment. He knows the locker room. He’ll need less time to adapt back into the team, into the league,” Savarese said. “That’s a positive. [He brings] qualities that will help us.”

All that makes Villafaña more than a mere option. The 19 caps he’s accumulated with his national team are not trifles he’s randomly collected over a journeyman’s course. They have all come since Jan. 2017, culminating a rise that took him from Sueño MLS reality show winner to the heights of U.S. soccer. In two seasons in Portland, he made 52 regular-season appearances, scoring twice while setting up seven other goals, all en route to an MLS title in Dec. 2015. Six days later, the reaction to his Santos departure highlighted what he’d quickly become: a fan favorite, one who’d helped deliver an MLS Cup.

And, as Wilkinson said six months ago, he’s a player the club never wanted to leave. But thanks to the realities of 2015 Major League Soccer, Villafaña embarked on a new phase of his career. With that chapter closed, the player who came up as a reality star, established himself at Chivas but defined his career in Portland can return to the place of his biggest triumph, hoping both he and the team can pick up precisely where they left off.