David Villa had largely given up hope of a Spanish national team return. Sure, part of him knew that the world of international soccer was always shifting, that there was some scenario that could see him return to La Roja. The optimist in him knew there was still a glimmer of hope that he could represent his country one more time, but the realist knew that chance became less likely day by day throughout his three-year absence.
On Friday, that chance came and, in Villa’s eyes, it was a dream come true.
Shortly before leading NYCFC to a 1-1 draw against the rival New York Red Bulls, Villa was called in to Spain’s squad ahead of World Cup qualifiers. He’ll join La Roja against Spain and Luxembourg as he looks to make his first international appearance since the 2014 World Cup. A lot has happened in the three years since. He’s become the face of an MLS franchise and asserted himself as arguably the most dominant striker in league history.
In some ways, the signs were there that Villa’s return could be imminent. Spain had sent coaches to watch NYCFC over the past month, showing that there was at least some interest from head coach Julen Lopetegui in tracking Villa’s efforts. He responded with five goals over three appearances, bolstering his total to a league-high 19 on the season. Soon came the long-awaited phone call, and a dream come true.
“Every game with the national team, the night before the coach sets the roster, I always was a little bit nervous, hoping that I’d wake up in the morning and be on the roster,” Villa said. “Since it was three years ago, in this moment, no one knew that the coach was coming here, and I was thinking it was a dream. It’s a dream. I get to go to my home, see my family after this situation. I’m trying to enjoy it and do the best I can.”
Villa’s return is certainly a special one, in several ways. It sees the return of the country’s all-time leading goalscorer with 59 goals in 97 appearances. It sees the return of a European and World Cup champion, reuniting the NYCFC forward with fellow Spanish legends like Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. With Diego Costa’s club situation all but certain, Spain needed help at striker, and Villa has the history and form to bring something to a Spain squad that’s certainly transitioning from the old guard to a new group of young stars.
The NYCFC forward is also the lone non-European-based player to join Spain. It’s a team that’s frequently made up of players from the biggest clubs in the world, and Villa certainly sees the importance of an MLS forward earning the attention of one of the world’s top national teams.
“I’ve said from the start when I came here: I do the same here as I do in Spain,” Villa said. “I do the same as I did with Barcelona, with Valencia, with Atletico Madrid, Zaragoza, Sporting Gijon. It doesn’t change. I need to acclimate to the league and the differences to the league, but I always do the same. The coach saw me watching the game and he thought I could help, so I go.
“The manager has noticed that I’m in good form, even though I’m playing outside Europe,” he added, “and that’s important. It’s important for me, and for MLS, and for the recognition of a league that wants to grow. We’re on a path of growth. We’re a young league, but we’re growing.”
Villa’s call-up is a lot more than making a statement for MLS, though. It’s about World Cup qualification. A win over Italy on Friday would all but confirm La Roja’s place in Russia.
As for his club team, they face big matches as well. Villa’s call-up means he’ll certainly miss a Sept. 6 match against Sporting KC and he’s likely to miss a match against the Portland Timbers three days later due to all the travel involved. Villa has started all but two matches throughout NYCFC’s season. He’s played in all but one.
While Villa looks to lead his country to the next stage of World Cup qualifying, NYCFC’s battle for the postseason, and perhaps even a Supporters’ Shield, will continue without the reigning MVP.
“We try not to rely on him as much,” said Jack Harrison. “If you look at the way we played in Columbus, we were able to get three goals. We played well there. We try not to rely on him too much. We have a lot of depth on this team that can step in and impact the team as well.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” the young winger added. “For someone at his point of his career to make the national team, it’s amazing.”
Villa would certainly agree. For years he hoped for that call while continuing to dominate on the club level. Now that it’s come, he’s ready to take his chance once again while trying to create one more special moment with his national team.