Jorge Villafana took the long road home.
The Southern California native had hardly finished celebrating helping the Portland Timbers win the MLS Cup when he flew to Mexico to join Santos Laguna. Now, he's back in the Los Angeles area, where he hopes to help the Liga MX side get its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal off to a strong start in Wednesday's first leg.
"I’m really happy to go back to my hometown, LA. I want to see some family, some friends," Villafana told Goal USA.
His teammates have mined him for information about the Galaxy, who Villafana faced while playing for Chivas USA and the Timbers.
"They have asked me for some advice about the team," he said. "I know they’ve let go some of their key players, but they still have a core.
"They’re still a pretty good team and have some some new signings for the new season. They’re going to have a good team. But we’re already in the season, they’re in the preseason, so we’ll see if we can take advantage of that."
Villafana brings up one of the most discussed aspects of the current CCL format, which sees MLS teams enter the quarterfinals relatively cold while Mexican clubs are coming in after seven weeks of regular-season action. As the Montreal Impact showed last year with their run to the final, MLS teams still can succeed. And while the Galaxy could lack cohesion, the addition of former European stars Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong to help replace Omar Gonzalez and Juninho - both of whom were sold to Liga MX clubs not in CCL - mean the team will be no pushover.
Santos will be cognizant of the Galaxy's potential, and though a Mexican team has won every edition of the tournament since the current format was adopted in 2008-09, Los Guerreros want to help continue that legacy.
"I think it’s a big rivalry always between the U.S. and Mexico, and I think in club it’s the same thing," Villafana said. "The rivalry, you know, no one wants to lose to the U.S., no one wants to lose to Mexico.
"I think for MLS it’s a big tournament because it’s the only international tournament that you can play in for MLS. So, yeah, it’s a big deal because we go there with the opportunity to play in the Club World Cup. It’s a pretty important tournament that we look forward to and we see it as a good opportunity."
The 26-year-old Villafana has mostly experienced disappointment in the CCL. Last tournament, he played two matches in Portland's disappointing group-stage exit. He also played in both legs of Chivas USA's 3-1 aggregate defeat to Panamanian side Tauro in 2008. Villafana and the tournament both have become much more polished as the years have progressed.
After locking down the left back spot, Villafana became one of MLS' best. When he moved to Santos, he became a near-immediate starter.
"It took a few weeks" to adjust, he said. "We just finished playing the final and then I flew a few days later to get some paperwork done because they already were in preseason, they’d already had a week of preseason. I had to jump in with the group already in training.
"It was different, in Mexico there are different techniques to adapt to new fields, new soccer ball. Yeah, it took a while, it took a few weeks, but at the end the coach gave me the confidence. I’ve been playing and I’m just trying to keep working."
So far, the work seems to be paying off. It would no doubt be sweetened by a win over the team that once was a crosstown menace and remains a rival of Villafana's team despite the distance.
- D.C. United might have the best chance of any MLS side to get through to the semifinals. Queretaro has just two victories in the current Liga MX season, and both of those came against teams that have yet to get a victory after seven weeks of league play. Dorados and Verarcuz have been very poor this season, and D.C. United's defense can stifle the Gallos Blancos' weak attack. Ben Olsen has a strong side in Mexico, and with the second leg at home, his side has an excellent shot at moving on.
- The Seattle Sounders had a bit of good luck and a bit of bad luck coming out of the weekend. Reigning CCL champion Club America saw goalkeeper Moises Munoz and forward Dario Benedetto suffer injuries in the first half of a wild 3-3 draw against Cruz Azul, but red cards to forward Oribe Peralta and Darwin Quintero mean manager Nacho Ambriz will have no reservations about playing the duo. They'll test the Sounders' newly arranged defense.
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