When Jorge Villafaña came back to the Portland Timbers two-and-a-half years ago, he returned to a slew of familiar faces, and not just those that remained from Portland's 2015 championship team.
He had just spent over two years in Mexico, winning a Liga MX title for Santos Laguna while breaking into the United States men's national team. He'd improved, matured, then returned to the team that helped guide him into the prime of his career - a point when his days with Flores on his back and "Sueño" as his calling card were left in the Chivas USA locker room.
But during his initial moments training back in Portland, it was the name "George" — delivered with an ironic twang, as a take on Jorge — that he heard first; that he heard screamed from the sidelines by a player who shared early days as a pro.
"Is that 'George' Flores," yelled Zarek Valentin, a teammate of Villafaña's in L.A., and a player who'd be competing with Sueño for playing time at left back in Portland.
If there was anyone who should have been upset at "Villa's" return, it was Valentin. Over the previous year-plus, he'd fought hard to win the left back's job, eventually dislodging the incumbent, Vytas, during the 2017 season. Instead, Valentin seemed effusive, welcoming back a teammate who'd also navigated the Chivas gauntlet, and doing so with a small allusion to the many names "Villa's" been called.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers
Valentin wasn't the only familiar face at training that day in Beaverton. Carlos Llamosa, one of Giovanni Savarese's Timbers assistant coaches, was also on staff during Villafaña's time at Chivas USA. Ben Zemanski, a teammate of Villa's in both Los Angeles and Portland, was also on hand, visiting training after recently accepting an assistant's job at the University of Portland. The four held a mini-Chivas reunion near the sideline before training began in earnest. There were also players like Diegos Chara and Valeri, defender Liam Ridgewell, and the rest of a core that remained in Portland beyond the 2015 offseason. All of them knew the on-field quality Villafaña brought back from Mexico.
This is one side of what Villafaña, the Timber, part of the reason Portland made sure they could sign him when he came back from Mexico. He doesn't get talked about as a locker room "glue guy," per se, but players like Villafaña are crucial. They're at ease with everyone, transcend cliques and circles, and make locker rooms what players miss most when they're gone.
They're ever-present, steady, reliable. They're the ones you don't think twice about when an opportunity comes to re-sign them. They're low maintenance, affable - the type of players that get taken for granted because they don't demand more. Villafañas help keep the grind from feeling like work.
That's why days like these can hurt, even though as sports fans, we've learned they're inevitable. Today, the Timbers announced that Villafaña has been traded, moving closer to his Southern California roots and to the fourth team of his professional career: the LA Galaxy.
“Jorge has been a model professional for the club and I would like to thank him and his family for their commitment and contributions to the Timbers,” Gavin Wilkinson, Portland's general manager and president of soccer, said in his team's announcement. “[Villafaña's] performances and success for this club will leave a lasting memory ...”
Even narrowing our scope to Portland's 2015 Cup-winning team, we can think of player after player who, when the realities of sports won out, had a note of sadness in their departure. For Villafaña, the note's been played twice, now, and each time, those notes left a club reflecting on what he brought.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers
He's been the best left back of the team's MLS era, something that was not only confirmed by his role in Portland's MLS Cup triumph but the fact that a significant Mexican club came calling for him. Eventually, his country did, too. By the time Villafaña returned to MLS, he'd been capped 21 times by the U.S. men's national team, an absurdly high level for somebody who, at one time, won his way into professional soccer through a reality television show. For so long, Villafaña's status as Sueño was a reductive shorthand for didn't look deeper. By the time he left Portland, he was an international-caliber fullback who could impact all levels of the field.
Those contributions were more evident than ever in 2020. While fans' memories of Villafaña getting into the attack extend back to 2014, come 2020, he was more than a player that could surge forward. He has fully adapted to a modern fullback's role, one that at some times asks him to rotate into midfield, and at others demands he camps along the other team's defense. He's had to provide width, bolster the middle, stretch teams vertically, and also be ready to serve as a focal point in possession. His game became more than getting high and playing in crosses. The combinations he help build led to some of last season's most beautiful goals.
That profile is easy not to replace, and because of his quality, a new team stepped up to provide his next home. It's a team that plays where Villafaña's career started, though in returning to Dignity Health Sports Park, he'll be in the better locker room, now. With the Galaxy, Villafaña and his wife move closer to their families, closer to the city where he grew up (Anaheim), to potentially play an important part with a team that's hoping to rebound. As we discussed last month, the nature of MLS means teams are constantly trying to evolve, and because of that, another left back is coming to Portland. But Villafaña is still coming off a 2020 where he was one of MLS's most productive at his position. There's a reason why the Galaxy gave up a first-round draft pick to get him.
That's part of the reason why Villafaña will be missed, though in truth, it may not be the most important one. Still, his on-field value shouldn't be overlooked. In each of the last four seasons Villafaña was in Portland, he helped his team to the playoffs. He was part of two Western Conference champions, one MLS Cup winner, and played an important, perhaps vital part at last summer's MLS Is Back Tournament. Between Mexico and MLS, he's started for teams that claimed five trophies over the last six years.
There are also the reasons he'll be missed off the field - the reasons why his former teammates were so open to his return two-and-a-half years ago. They're the reasons why the Timbers sought him out on his MLS return, why he was a part of so much joy on the field, and why, even amid the realities of professional sports, it's hard to see him go.
“It’s been an honor playing in Portland," Villafaña said, offering a type of final word via the Timbers' trade announcement, "and I’m grateful for helping this club win some trophies … My family and I have built amazing memories with my teammates and friends in Portland. I also want to thank the Timbers Army and all the fans that have supported me through the good times and the bad. I’m forever grateful.”
They're words that reflect the teammate, and in the highlights he leaves behind, there's ample reason to remember the player, too. Over four-and-a-half seasons, Villafaña's impact went beyond anything that could have reasonably expected; anything that could have reasonably been hoped. That won't be forgotten any time soon.