Photo courtesy of the LA Galaxy
By ADAM SERRANO
CARSON, Calif. –The professional career of Los Angeles Galaxy Homegrown product Jose Villarreal may not have begun as he would have liked, but after recovering from an knee injury cut his preseason short, the 18-year-old midfielder is eager to make an impact with the defending MLS Cup champions.
Signed in December to a Homegrown contract, Villarreal's preseason ended in early February as the midfielder underwent surgery to repair bilateral lower-leg compartment syndrome. The injury did not deter the midfielder from Inglewood, Calif., who quickly returned to training and even traveled with the LA Galaxy U-18 squad to Spain for the Real Sociedad XXVII Youth Invitational Tournament.
On Monday, Villarreal appeared to be back in form, making a highly productive 20 minute performance for the Galaxy in their 1-0 reserve league victory over the Seattle Sounders.
"I’m definitely getting better, I’m working with the trainers and getting into shape, so I’ll be fine," said Villarreal. "I’m just trying to stay focused and positive when I’m training with my teammates and working hard so hopefully I can play."
Against Seattle, Villarreal made an immediate offensive impact for the Galaxy after he came on the field in the 70th minute for forward Pat Noonan. In the 75th minute, the young midfielder forced a diving save from Seattle goalkeeper Brian Meredith before nearly scoring again just a minute later.
Although Villarreal was unable to tally against the Sounders, it did not prevent him from earning the praise of his teammates, including forward Adam Cristman. Villarreal admits that the veteran forward, who at 27 is nine years Villarreal's senior, has been instrumental in helping the young midfielder, particularly with his work on the defensive side of the ball.
"He’s a young guy and he’s a great talent," Cristman said. "I’m 10 years ahead of Jose, and there are things that I can help him to improve his game, because it’s a big jump from youth soccer to college and it’s another big jump from college to the pros. For Jose making that straightaway jump, it’s a steep learning curve and he’s doing a great job and he’s going to develop really well.
"He’s got a lot of great athletic attributes. And I think he’s going to be a guy that within a year that is going to develop and get some minutes on any team."
Cristman was not alone in his praise of Villarreal's return as Galaxy reserve coach Curt Onalfo agreed that the academy star has the skills that could lead to future success.
"He’s another talented young player and just like any of them, they have to continue to learn all the things that you need to learn as a pro about how to move defensively, but he’s another guy who instinctively is very good," Onalfo said. "He’s very comfortable on the ball and has to adapt to the speed of play, but when they do that consistently, that’s when you see more success."
GARCIA FIGHTING FOR OPPORTUNITIES
Chances for playing time are slim for Galaxy rookie midfielder Rafael Garcia, but due to the MLS reserve league, the industrious Garcia is getting an opportunity to show what he can do.
Selected by the Galaxy in the supplemental draft after a successful four-year career with local college CSU-Northridge, Garcia showcased his talents on Monday in his 30-minute appearance for the Galaxy reserves.
Coming on in the 60th minute for midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, the tenacious Garcia was a handful for the Sounders midfield and provided the game's lone goal in the 90th minute with a timely header from a Raul Mendiola cross.
"I love him, I have to say. I’ve always liked him. I loved him in college and was just glad we got him. Sometimes it’s difficult for me and for him, because we’ve got other guys who need to get minutes," said Onalfo. "Today, Sarvas needed minutes, which meant he was coming off the bench. He deserves to be on the field. My message to him was to make the most of your opportunity. Sometimes playing 30 minutes is more important than playing 90, and certainly that was the case today.”
While Onalfo may be full of acclaim for the supplemental draft pick, Garcia is simply trying to make the most of his opportunities.
"Any time I step on the field I try and make the best of it," said Garcia. "There's a lot of good players so we're going to have to share some time for a while. Whenever I step on the field, I'm just excited to help the team in whatever way that they need help and get those points."
MENDIOLA SHINES WITH RESERVES
Villarreal and Garcia are not the only players taking advantage of the reserve league to showcase their talents, Mendiola, another academy star, put in a fine performance against Seattle.
Mendiola took the field in the 76th minute after coming on for starter Kyle Nakazawa and terrorized the Sounders defense down the left flank. In 90th minute, Mendiola was at his finest, as the midfielder received a through-ball from Hector Jimenez and then played a briliant give-and-go with Rafael Garcia before firing in a pinpoint cross for Garcia to head past Meredith.
After helping to set up Garcia for the matches' only goal, Onalfo drew comparisons between the Manchester City and Sevilla trialist and a current MLS star.
"He's got great instincts going forward. He reminds me a little of [D.C. United's] Andy Najar, when I was [head coach] in D.C.," Onalfo said. "Guys like that, you've got to let them play with their instincts and just create things, and that's certainly what he did when he came into the game."