WATCH: Villarreal's 2012 highlights
CARSON, Calif. – Jose Villarreal has returned to the LA Galaxy from an extremely successful run at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and now, after leading the U.S. Under-20’s to the Under-20 World Cup, he is targeting a spot in the Galaxy starting XI.
WATCH: Villarreal's first goal vs Canada
Villarreal shined throughout the tournament as he played on the left-side of head coach Tab Ramos’ 4-3-3 formation. The Galaxy Homegrown forward made four appearances—all starts—during the tournament’s five matches, scoring three goals including a brace in the quarterfinal against Canada to help the U.S. book a ticket to the U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
Ultimately, the U.S. fell in the final to hosts Mexico in a thrilling 3-1 extra time result in front of a capacity crowd at Estadio Cuauhtémoc, but the defeat did not sour Villarreal on the experience or his performance.
“It was amazing. [Ramos] kept telling us that you were never going to forget when you went through qualifiers and the experience,” said Villarreal. “When we were there, you take it for granted, but once it’s time to come back home, to make it through to the final against Mexico and to play in a full stadium, it was the greatest feeling ever.
“I think I did fine,” the Galaxy Homegrown forward added. “I’m glad that I got to help out the team with some goals and hopefully I can do more to make it further in the World Cup.”
The experience of a major international youth competition was an enriching one for Villarreal, who figures to be a key contributor during the tournament in Turkey this summer, but the opportunity to face Mexico in a final was head and shoulders above the rest.
WATCH: Villarreal's second goal vs Canada
In fact, Villarreal played in two fewer minutes against Mexico than he did in the entire 2012 MLS season.
“It was as big as it gets, playing in front of 50,000 fans and having everyone booing you,” he said. “It is something that if you want to play in the [LA Galaxy] first team or the senior national team then you’re obviously going to have to go through that by playing in Azteca, so to be able to experience that, it was something amazing. It was a tough game against Mexico who are a very good team, but I think we showed throughout the tournament that the U.S. is not behind Mexico.”
Now that Villarreal has returned, head coach Bruce Arena may very well opt to insert the Homegrown forward into the starting XI. Prior to departing for international duty, Villarreal was one of the stars of the Galaxy preseason with Robbie Keane tabbing him to serve as one of the club’s major contributors in 2013.
If Villarreal does slide up top that would likely see Keane’s current forward partner Mike Magee slide out to left flank. Something that Magee would be more than comfortable with doing.
“I knew it all along that at some point; I’ll probably be back out there whether it’s Jose or Landon coming back in,” said Magee. “Obviously, I’m comfortable on the left and I’ve done well up top so far so I’m completely comfortable either way … [and] completely fine on the right.”
Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena for one was pleased with Villarreal’s performance during the youth tournament, but admitted that he’ll need to raise his game in order to become a Galaxy regular.
“His playing was good. It was a different type of competition. It was a youth competition, although international soccer,” said Arena. “It’s a good experience to play in your age group, but he’s playing with the big boys now and he’s got to make that adjustment.
“We all know that Jose is a good player with a lot of promise and we hope that we can get more from him this year.”
But before Villarreal can earn a starting spot, the mature teenage forward knows that he needs to refine his own game and after watching stars from across the region, he believes that he has a blueprint for success.
“Seeing them how they take the game into their hands made me realize that I need to train a little bit harder and everyday get better. Eventually that will help me to come here and win a spot for myself,” said Villarreal. “We all practice to be a starter and to walk onto the field holding a little kids’ hand...I always think that if I work hard, practice, and take advantage of the minutes that I get on the field then eventually I’ll become a starter.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com