By Jeff Capellini
It’s not like David Villa is starving for a championship, but it would really be a shame if his time in the Big Apple ends without one.
He has been a revelation, a prime-time performer extraordinaire.
The Spanish superstar may be the best athlete in New York sports right now. I realize that sentiment probably won’t be shared by many in this town, given the fact that it would take a miracle for soccer to ever command the same attention as the other major team sports.
But it would be wrong for anyone who fancies himself a serious sports fan to not at least acknowledge what this guy has been doing.
Villa has been nothing short of sensational since signing on as the first player in New York City FC history a little more than three years ago. He has been that rare high-priced talent that has actually lived up to the hype.
In a region of the country where “the beautiful game” is often viewed as a glorified youth participation sport by the old-school intelligentsia, NYCFC’s captain, who doubles as Major League Soccer’s reigning MVP, has performed as well, if not better, than any other athlete you can name.
Forget about what he accomplished during his prime years as a superstar striker for Spain in the World Cup and European Championship, or with legendary club sides FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in La Liga. I’m talking about the Villa we see now — a soon-to-be 36-year-old who is supposed to be showing some slow-down due to a grueling career that has been going on since he was a teenager.
But that hasn’t happened. Villa still plays the game with extremely high levels of speed, skill and passion. It has resulted in him scoring a remarkable 58 goals in 85 regular season games. He continues to be the top offensive performer in MLS, and that’s with opponents concocting specific defenses to bracket him on a nightly basis.
Just ask the Red Bulls, who had NYCFC beat this past Sunday at Yankee Stadium right up until when they lost track of Villa. The legendary striker completed his first MLS hat trick with two goals in the final 20 minutes as NYCFC made it two wins in as many tries against its hated rivals in league play this season with a 3-2, come-from-behind victory.
Villa’s complete game was on display throughout, and it drew rave reviews from many of the parties involved.
“David is our leader,” NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira said. “When he is playing like that, that lifts the team, and players are behind him the whole way.
“When David is playing well, the team is playing well, and today … he was David.”
Added Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch: “What happens with high-quality guys is if you give them space, they hurt you. (Villa) is a quality player. There’s nothing else to say.”
Of course, those that don’t respect the level of play in MLS will use it as their primary reasoning why Villa is still relevant. In no way am I saying that MLS is on par with the top leagues in the world, like the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga. But how does one accurately make the comparison? Beyond the eye test, how do you really know if the difference between the North American game and what we see overseas is really all that vast?
It’s difficult to do beyond looking at the quality and name recognition of the players involved.
As far as I am concerned, it’s a lot easier to just not make the comparisons. Instead, why not just enjoy what you’re watching? The reality is it doesn’t make one bit of difference if Real Madrid would spank NYCFC. Fans of each just want to see their side win championships, so how they would do against teams from all corners of the globe is a conversation that at the end of the day is really reserved for the elite of the elite.
As far as what’s important from an NYCFC perspective, rising to the top of MLS and winning a title should be all that matters. Villa deserves a championship more than any other player on the roster. And while he has agreed to return next season, his team looks capable of getting the job done this season.
The question is, will it? Villa’s teammates seem to be in agreement. Any team failure going forward will almost certainly not be on the face of the franchise.
“(Villa) is not happy when he doesn’t score goals, but he is a guy who speaks with his actions, and everybody kind of follows through his work ethic,” goaltender Sean Johnson said.
For his part, Villa said setting an example has always been his top priority.
“I try to do my best always in the training facility or in the games,” he said following Sunday’s match. “I try to show the young players (that) I arrived at where I arrived. If they show me like a leader, it is a pleasure to me.”
NYCFC has done a lot in a very short period of time. Following a predictably rough expansion season in 2015 in which they finished 10-17-7 and missed the playoffs, “The Blues” went 15-10-9 last season, coming in second in the Eastern Conference before bowing out in rather embarrassing fashion to Toronto FC in the two-leg conference semifinals.
Expectations were ratcheted up coming into 2017, due in large part to Villa’s 23-goal, MVP season a year ago. And so far, NYCFC has performed admirably, going 12-7-4, good enough for third place in the East. As expected, Villa has been the offensive catalyst, scoring 17 goals and assisting on seven others in 22 appearances.
The idea of a third-year expansion team in any sport winning a championship is far-fetched, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility with this club. NYCFC does still struggle on occasion in its own end, due in part to a slew of injuries, but offensively it is among the best in MLS. The onus in the short term is on sporting director Claudio Reyna to find a way to add some defensive reinforcements before the transfer window closes Wednesday night.
If Reyna is successful and Vieira can quickly get everyone on the same page, NYCFC could end up being a pretty tough out come the playoffs. Of course, it will be a lot easier on the Blues if they can somehow finish in the top two in the conference and avoid the play-in round.
If there end up being no new additions, this group is going to have to find a way to get the job done, beyond simply relying on its captain to continue his otherworldly play.
If ever there was a time to be all-in, now is it for NYCFC. If for no other reason than because Villa deserves it.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN