As the smoke cleared and confetti slowly settled in the wake of the Timbers’ 2015 MLS Cup run, the team turned to face a short off-season to prepare for the 2016 calendar, and with it came difficult decisions concerning the roster. Major League Soccer had yet to infuse the level of allocation money that club’s enjoy today, and the price of success showed a cast of important players out the door. Captain and team enforcer Will Johnson, starting winger and MLS cup game-winning goal scorer Rodney Wallace, clutch striker and crowd favorite Maxi Urruti, and starting left back Jorge Villafana all departed after earning their championship rings.
But in the years that followed, no player has been missed more tactically than the left back affectionately nicknamed Sueno. Since Villafana’s departure, Portland played a host of players in the left side of the defense, including Chris Klute, Jermaine Taylor, Roy Miller, Jack Barmby, Vytas, and Zarek Valentin. All have had varying levels of success, but ultimately none of these players were able to lock down the position.
To answer that question, we have to backtrack to before Villafana’s first stint in Portland, and actually to before his professional career even started, to the origin story of his nickname, “Sueno.”
The Attacker Who Learned to Defend
You may have heard the short version before: Villafana (who at the time went by the name Jorge Flores) won Sueno MLS 2007 at the age of 17, a national reality TV show competition where thousands of young players compete to win a spot in professional team’s academy. Now-defunct Chivas USA signed Villafana to a contract with their U19 squad, and the rest, as they say, is history. But there are fragments that help piece together who Sueno is as a player.
First, it shouldn’t surprise you that Villafana was not a fullback in high school (the odds of a pure defender winning a reality sports show seem quite minute) but rather a left winger. A large part of why Chivas took note of the young man from Anaheim was because he was the lone competitor who managed to score a goal against the Chivas academy team in scrimmage.
His career as an attacking player extended into his professional career; with the Chivas senior team, Villafana would spend time at left back, winger, and he even played as a striker briefly for Caleb Porter’s U-23 US National team. It wasn’t until his arrival in Portland that he took on the role of fullback permanently.
Villafana’s experience at other positions on the field have shaped his style of play now. He has a delicate touch and handle on the ball, allowing him to spin and dribble around defenders while looking for outlets upfield.
If you’ve watched Portland’s outside backs this year, you’ll notice a significant contrast in comparison to Villafana in a variety of areas:
When Powell attacks he does so quite directly. On the ball, he drifts towards the box in the final third. His crosses usually don’t have quite the right placement, so he opts to make a defender commit and stop his beeline towards goal.
When Valentin attacks he does so cautiously. Understanding his offensive limitations and wanting to remain defensively sound, his passes are either out wide to a winger on the touchline, cycled back, or across field in an attempt to probe the defense.
Villafana attacks with a wider array of skills: with enough pace to catch up to attacking players, the left back is able to join in the offensive movements confidently. Let’s look at some examples:
As the Villafana runs onto the ball sent over the top of the defender, he doesn’t look to slow the attack, even though there aren’t any supporting attackers on his side of the field. Instead, he fires it back into the box on a half volley, placed perfectly for Adi to connect on a header. While Villafana doesn’t get credit for an assist, the goal was made possible by his aggressive play and confidence in blasting a cross into the box.
On this play, Johnson plays a through ball to Villafana as he makes a run that pushes the left back out in front of the rest of the attacking corps. After playing in a low cross, Villlafana drifts further into the box looking to help in the attack and, by the time the ball presents itself, the left back is in the middle of the 18 yard box where he slots the ball into the back of the net.
This play is familiar to Timbers fans because of the incredible goal itself. But if you shift your attention away from the ball, you’ll see Villafana drift into space in the box and position himself right in front of goal as the Timbers build from the right side. Villafana’s decision to do so forces the LA defender to account for him on the back post and opens up a channel straight down the middle for Diego Chara to rise up and head home his legendary goal.
With a burst of speed down the wing, Villafana finds himself in space with attackers joining in late. Rather than curling back to reset the attack, Villafana trusts his dribble, cuts in towards goal, slows his touch, and waits for the arrival of Maxi Urruti, at which time the left back touches it directly into the path of the striker’s run.
With confidence on and off the ball, plus a knack for finding space wherever it presents itself, Villafana skill set is is perfectly suited for Saverese’s attack. If the wing player wants to cut inside to probe the defense, Villafana is positioned to release pressure or send a cross into the box. If the winger decides to drag out to the flank, Villafana will slide into the top of the box and blast a shot on goal if given an opening.
His skill on the ball also means he’s capable of handling set pieces. He regularly took corner kicks from the right for the Timbers in 2014-15, and was an option for free kicks from the left side of the field as well. It may seem insignificant, but if your left back is able to competently place corner kicks, it frees up a player like Diego Valeri to drift to the top of the box, which forces the defense to send a man out of the box to mark Valeri. One less defender can be the difference between winning and losing an aerial duel six yards from goal.
But the US international’s contribution to the offense isn’t just limited to him pushing up the field. Perhaps one of his most exciting additions to the field for Gio’s team is his knack for opening up the Timbers’ offense quickly after the defense wins the ball back. Instead of always seeking an easy outlet to a midfielder to carry the ball into attack, Villafana is capable of immediately looking further upfield for runners in on goal, dropping dimes over the top, or slotting in passes that split opposing defenders and leave the opposition scrambling.
With attacking options like Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, Lucas Melano, and especially Samuel Armenteros who all thrive in open space, Villafana can create opportunities from the back third on a regular basis.
Jorge Villafana may not be an elite defender in the broad scope, but in MLS terms he’s a tremendous left back. In the same way that Villafana brings a different style and approach to attacking movements, he does things differently on the defensive side as well:
First, he has good acceleration and pace. It won’t be easy for attacking players to blow by him. In contrast, Valentin keeps players in front of him by leaving a buffer so guarantee the attacker can’t dribble past him, but Villafana trusts his speed to make calculated gambles. Villafana will pressure the dribbler higher up the pitch and track with him down the wing.
Second, Villafana cuts the ball out well. When Powell is left 1 on 1 with an opposing player, he utilizes his strength and athleticism to muscle his opponent off the ball. But Villafana’s experience as an attacking player shows in how he dispossesses opponents, by jabbing and poking at the ball as the attacker attempts to make a move. This can lead to some silly fouls, but it also means that Villafana doesn’t have to get “stuck in” in order to defend. Attackers have to keep their dribble glued to their feet or else risk it getting stripped away.
And third, Villafana has good instincts. Another likely effect of playing as an attacking player, Villafana fills empty spaces defensively, cuts off passing lanes and positions himself well as a secondary defender.
There is plenty more that could be said about Jorge Villafana, and it doesn’t even account for his evolution as a player in Liga MX and for the US Men’s National Team the past few years. But one thing is for sure: Gio and the Timbers have added a versatile, competent player who offers a skill set that directly strengthens both the style and players the Timbers currently utilize.
But, no matter how he’s ultimately deployed on the pitch, it’s good to have Sueno coming home.