From Inglewood to The Home Depot Center

Jose Villarreal's story from "Inglewood kid" to one of the LA Galaxy's top performers

“He’s been my biggest influence and I’m pretty sure that he’s proud of me and even though he doesn’t show it, I know that he’s happy. He’s the first person that I go to for everything and I ask him about advice for soccer and anything that I need. Your parents, they know everything so they let you know and I’m just fortunate to have a dad like mine and he’s always been there behind me one hundred percent.”

The quote above could come from any of the thousands of teenagers that reside in Southern California. Learn that it comes from Jose Villarreal and it is no surprise that he describes himself as, “just a normal kid from Inglewood.”

On the surface Villarreal could be any teenager in Southern California, he still lives at home with his father, mother and two brothers and enjoys hanging out with family and friends. But when the teenager—who turns 19 on Monday—puts on his LA Galaxy jersey, he is anything but normal.

Displaying a deft touch and maturity on the ball that exceeds his age, the young forward from Inglewood has quickly burst onto the scene in his first MLS season since signing a Homegrown deal with LA in December. The deal with the Galaxy came as a surprise to some because Villarreal chose to stay close to his family in Los Angeles rather than sign with a number of interested teams abroad, despite not being able to play until July due to MLS rules that dictate that he spend a year in LA’s Academy setup. 

Villarreal Highlights

However, once he was cleared he quickly became one of LA’s key contributors tallying two goals—including a world class strike against Vancouver for his first career goal—and one assist in all competitions.

A rise that the kid from Inglewood never imagined would be happening so quickly.

“When I got cleared, I was just hoping to get on the bench and work my way up from there. And it seems that my hard work has paid off, there’s still a lot more to go…but I’m very happy with the way that things are going right now,” Villarreal told LAGalaxy.com. “It’s always fun to be known as the kid from Inglewood that plays with Beckham and the big stars and played against Real Madrid, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

To truly appreciate the youngster’s meteoric rise, one must go back to a youth soccer field in San Bernardino where the forward’s career really took off. At the time, the then 12-year-old Villarreal was playing for a tiny club called Pacific Coast that was made up of friends from the neighborhood and coached by his father, Jaime Sr.

In the stands of the match was South Bay Force head coach Todd Saldana, who had been tipped off by Villarreal’s elder brother Alexis about the talents of young Jose. Saldana, a former head coach at UCLA where he coached the likes of Carlos Bocanegra and Nick Rimando, among others, was immediately impressed by what he saw.

“I had heard about [Jose] and I took the drive to watch them play because they’re from our area and I thought let’s take a look,” Saldana recently told LAGalaxy.com. “He was a noticeable, competitive, skillful young little talent. He was left-footed and had some special qualities, but he was playing with his friends and being coached by his dad, and while you could see special qualities it was a case of can we potentially bring him into an organized club situation and take him further.”

Saldana did eventually bring Villarreal into the South Bay Force set up, where he spent several years before moving to U.S. Soccer Development Academy club Pateadores. Saldana immediately followed his star pupil becoming the club’s head coach as the side would go on to win the 2011 Development Academy title with a two-goal performance from Villarreal in the final.

Saldana is a natural mentor for the Galaxy youth star as the pair share a similar upbringing. Both players decided against careers in Europe, signing professional contracts with Los Angeles-based clubs as teenagers— Saldana signed with the NASL’s Los Angeles Aztecs in 1980 at the age of 18.

At the time of Saldana’s signing’ the Aztecs were every bit the star club that the Galaxy are now, with the local-kid from Torrance playing alongside Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff and Mexican international Javier Aguirre. This unique experience provided Saldana with plenty of advice to share with Villarreal once he was nearing a professional contract with a Galaxy.

“He talked to me about playing with Cryuff and George Best and how similar it was to me playing with Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham,” Villarreal said. “He said take in as much advice as I can, do anything that they tell me to do and just work hard.”

That hard working mentality has been clearly evident during Villarreal’s rollercoaster first season as a professional. Villarreal’s preseason was cut short just days after the start of training camp due as he underwent surgery to repair bilateral lower-leg compartment syndrome. The injury, which dated back to his youth soccer days, was the teenager’s first true experience of being injured.

“It was frustrating for us and certainly for him. We knew that it wasn’t career-ending; it was one of those things that delayed a lot of the beginning. We try with every injured player to keep them mentally in it and especially for a young kid,” said Galaxy Associate head coach Dave Sarachan. “Sometimes young kids don’t know the difference between being injured and being hurt. He had a severe situation and we just tried to give him encouragement to say just keep working, just keep getting fit, listen to the trainers and he did. To his credit, he got back.”

Once Villarreal returned from his injury, it was clear that the hard work had paid off as it he needed just two appearances to tally his first professional goal and two weeks to become a member of LA’s rotation. Since becoming eligible, Villarreal has been on the Galaxy’s 18-man roster for every game since including the club’s two CONCACAF Champions League matches. But Villarreal’s rapid ascension comes with strings attached as the forward must deal with the increasing pressure of being considered one of the league’s top prospects.

One of the most intense pressures that young players in MLS deal with –from media and fans alike—is the question of international play and Villarreal has proven no different. Over the past year, Villarreal earned a number of calls from U.S. youth national teams and is part of their set up, but he’s leaving his options open while focusing on his club career.

“Every now and then, I get asked about would I play for the U.S. or Mexico,” Villarreal said. “For now, whichever, (if) U.S. or Mexico comes up to me and asks me to play, then I’ll play for them, but for now I’m focused on the Galaxy.”

Villarreal’s focus isn’t international glory, but rather success at the club level. With the Galaxy currently in the thick of the playoff chase, he has quickly developed into one of head coach Bruce Arena’s most valuable weapons. 

And while that may be the realization of a dream for the youngster, there is no question that the “normal kid from Inglewood” belongs at The Home Depot Center.

“I always felt like I belonged here,” said Villarreal. “I grew up here; I always came to watch the games when I was small so now that I have a chance to play here and I think I belong here.”

Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@gmail.com