BEAVERTON, Ore. – It’s easy for the Portland Timbers’ community to attach memories of 2015 to Jorge Villafaña, who will try to build on that year’s MLS Cup title on Saturday in Atlanta (5pm PT, FOX). But as ever-present as those memories are – especially during another MLS Cup run – too much focus on the distance overshadows the decisions the Timbers’ left back has faced in 2018, when life has changed so markedly on and off the field.
“You always think about that with every move,” the U.S. international says, when asked about the implications for his family with his summer move back from Mexico. Days after winning MLS Cup with Portland in 2015, Villafaña transferred to Santos Laguna in Torreón, Mexico.
In August, the 29-year-old returned to the Rose City, electing to revisit the near-3,500-mile relocation and turn back the clock.
“You think about the family,” he says, about the choice. “But right now, my kids are little, still. They get adjusted really quick. They take it as another move – as another opportunity to build something better, meet new friends.”
In the big picture, the changes Villafaña’s endured on the field don’t matter as much, even if there are plenty of new friends there, too. New coaches, players, and staff around the team he left mark the reality of MLS, a young league changing amid its growth. The Timbers’ home stadium is even undergoing a major renovation, adding 4,000 seats to the venue’s east side, just as the adidas Timbers Training Center in Beaverton has taken on an entirely new look.
“The big difference is all of this,” he said on his first day back at the Training Center, gesturing from the practice field back to the complex’s main building. “It’s brand new. Everything is new. The kitchen. The gym. The locker room. It’s amazing how it looks, right now.”
That, this summer, Villafaña got to see those changes still surprises him. “To be honest, I didn’t know that I was going to be here in December, to be fighting for a Cup,” he says. Since coming back, though, Villafaña has established the same presence he had before. “You always come to work and help the team,” he says, as if the Jeopardy category he chose was “Nine words that understate Villafaña’s importance.”
With the first goal Portland scored last Thursday in the deciding leg of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Championship against Sporting Kansas City, you see part of his value, with the U.S. international racing up the left wing to combine with Sebastián Blanco. Moments after receiving Villafaña’s pass, Blanco launched his instant-legend of a goal. Still later, it was Villafaña again racing up the sideline to provide another pass to Blanco. That one, in the 61st minute, went back toward the middle of the field, with Blanco’s subsequent chip setting up the game’s decisive Diego Valeri goal.
Villafaña has stood out at the other end of the field, too. One-on-one matchups against FC Dallas’ Michael Barrios and Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell represent some of the stiffest wide challenges in the league. Neither man, despite their coaches’ plans, was able to turn the game in their teams’ favor. In Portland’s scheme, Villafaña is often left to guard a post as crosses come in from wide, but his protection of Jeff Attinella’s left upright has been flawless. Seattle Sounders FC’s 58-cross night in leg two of the Western Conference’s semifinals tested as much.
When the Timbers decided to bring Villafaña back to Portland, it would have been fair to ask if fullback was truly a position of need. With Zarek Valentin, Alvas Powell and Marco Farfan already on the depth chart, it was not. But as Villafaña’s play (and the quantity of it) suggests, his contributions have moved the team forward, so much so that the 29-year-old is again earning time on the international level.
That’s not to say the clock is completely turned back to 2015. After all, he wasn’t an international yet, then. He’s older now, his family’s grown, and from Torreón and back, the Villafañas have leapt in and out of two different worlds.
And just as the Villafañas are different than they were in 2015, so is this year’s Cup run.
“Every year, every championship is different,” he explains. “It’s the same feeling that you get once you get to the final, but it’s different.”
He experienced a final in Mexico, too, winning a Liga MX crown with Santos, but having left los Guerreros behind, Villafaña’s latest postseason run has hit a note of vindication. Retracing his steps, the Timber-once-more has again found himself on the brink of a title.
“I would say [the MLS Cup final] is a reward,” Villafaña says, referring his move. “Six months later, I get the opportunity to once again play for a title.”