PORTLAND, Ore. – It was a night that had been anticipated since his surprise return was confirmed toward the end of the summer transfer window, but when Jorge Villafaña’s presence in Wednesday’s starting lineup was revealed, the moment had snuck up on everyone. He was supposed to be injured, carrying a shoulder problem back from Mexico. He was supposed to be a ways away. Instead, the one-time Portland Timbers player became a two-time Timbers player against Toronto FC, starting at left back and going 80 minutes in his team’s 2-0, losing-streak-snapping victory over MLS’ defending champions.
"It feels very good,” the U.S. international said, after the match. “I'm really happy to be back. I've kept in touch with some of the guys and I'm enjoying it right now. I'm happy to have stepped on the pitch today and help the team get a win.”
That win snapped a four-game losing streak and vaulted the Timbers back into the Western Conference playoff picture, with second-half goals from Diego Chara and David Guzmán putting Portland's summer back on course.
In time, Villafaña's acquisition may prove the defining part of the season. A member of Portland’s 2015 title-winning team, Villafaña spent the last two-and-a-half years with Santos Laguna in Mexico’s Liga MX. During that time, he established himself as a first-choice left back for the U.S. national team, helping the one-time Chivas USA talent craft a bolstered resume ahead of last month’s return.
Wednesday’s 80 minutes against Toronto gave the 28-year-old a chance to reflect on that rise, one that’s came full circle with his second bow at Providence Park.
"Those experiences make you grow as a person and a player,” Villafaña said. “I'm just trying to be the voice on the backline and communicate with the team. I think that's the key to winning games – communicate and be compact in the back.”
Those keys were evident against a Toronto team that rarely tested goalkeeper Jeff Attinella despite the presence of Villafaña’s USMNT teammates, striker Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. While the Reds registered 10 shots on the night (to Portland’s 15), only one was on target – a sharp angle chance that was blocked into safety by Attinella.
Starting next to 2015 teammate Liam Ridgewell for the first time since that year’s MLS Cup final, Villafaña earned high marks from his new coach, who shifted normal starting left back Zarek Valentin to the right side to make room for his newest talent.
"He's not fully fit,” Giovanni Savarese said, contextualizing his first game managing Villafaña. “We expected him to play 60 minutes; he played a little more. For what he gave during the game was very good. He gave us a lot going forward and I thought it was great to be able to have him."
For his part, Villafaña felt every bit of those fitness concerns, confessing a certain level of exhaustion after the final whistle.
“To be honest, I was really tired at the end,” he said. “My legs couldn't go anymore, but I felt that I had a good run after being out for a couple of months. It's normal trying to get my fitness back and the rhythm of the game but I felt really good."
In time, that fitness will complement that feeling, allowing Portland fans to see the full version of Jorge Villafaña. Even at least than his best, though, the returning Timber showed why so many fans were anticipating his return.