CARSON, Calif. – Jose Villarreal is on a mission at the U-20 World Cup in Turkey: a mission to represent his nation, a mission to represent his hometown, and a mission to represent his club.
And that mission can be only be accomplished by scoring goals and winning games.
“It’s a blessing for sure to represent my country at a World Cup and at the international level,” Villarreal said after being officially named to the squad last week. “I hope that I make the best of it and I’m pretty sure that I will and I’ll try to do the best that I can to represent my country.”
Villarreal joined up with U-20 head coach Tab Ramos and the rest of the 21-man World Cup squad in Portugal following LA’s 3-1 defeat to Real Salt Lake as they prepare for the tournament opener against Spain on June 21. Against Salt Lake, the forward twice came agonizingly close to his third goal of the year when he fired a rocket off the crossbar in the 29th minute and then forced a lunging save from goalkeeper Nick Rimando eight minutes later.
Once the tournament begins, the 19-year-old hopes that he can regain his scoring touch as he has notched just two goals and a single assist in 15 matches so far across all competitions. Villarreal will be eager to regain the prolific form that he experienced during the 2013 U-20 CONCACAF Championship in Mexico when he finished with three goals en route to being named to the tournament’s Best XI.
“I need to start scoring again,” Villarreal said after the defeat to RSL. “It’s frustrating as a forward to not be scoring because I need to start putting the ball in the back of the net. Hopefully, when I get over there with the team, I’ll get myself going.”
Ramos and company will need Villarreal to be at his best if the U.S. is to advance from the tournament’s “Group of Death.” Placed in Group A alongside Spain, France and Ghana will be no easy task for the Americans, who went 1-3-0 in the Toulon tournament earlier this month. The assignment will be a difficult one, but with their valiant performance against eventual winners Mexico in the final of the CONCACAF Championship in their mind, the young Americans are confident.
“It’s a tough group, but we have a great group of guys and I think we can do great things and get the job done for the nation,” he said. “We played great teams before and, obviously even though we didn’t get the win against Mexico in Mexico, we showed people that we can compete so I think that if we come out with the right mentality then we can totally win games.”
Villarreal won’t be the only former member of the Galaxy Academy to represent the Red, White and Blue in Turkey as he’ll be joined by academy graduates Javan Torre, now a sophomore at UCLA, and Mario Rodriguez, who signed with Kaiserslautern in Germany last summer, as well as fellow Homegrown Oscar Sorto. The right back from South Central Los Angeles was one of the final cuts for Ramos during the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Mexico earlier in the year and Villarreal believes that he’ll have a lot to prove at the World Cup.
“Oscar deserves it. He’s been probably the top ’94 player for a while and it’s about time that he gets called up to something big like this, but now he has to prove himself,” said Villarreal. “I think that he will and I’m looking forward to having this experience with him and the rest of the guys.
“[The Galaxy Academy] produces a lot of good and talented players and now it’s showing at the international level,” Villarreal added. “All of these players have been through the academy at one stage of their career. They’re old friends of mine so it’s great.”
Villarreal and the rest of his teammates will have the support of the club, particularly, former U.S. U-20 and current U.S. international Landon Donovan. The 31-year-old enjoyed success at the U-20 level himself, when he led the U.S. to the Round of 16 at the 2001 World Youth Championships in Argentina.
“We wish him luck and we hope that they do well and they represent us well,” said Donovan. “We know that they’re in a tough group, but we want him to do well and we want them to do well there.”
Typically a World Cup is complete with celebrations and fanfare from the host nation, but Villarreal and the U.S. will head into a nation that is going through very uncertain times. Clashes between protesters and police in Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square have drawn worldwide attention as of late, but will not delay the start of the tournament according to FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
Although the demonstrations have been taking place less than 10 miles from Ali Sami Yen Arena where the U.S. will face Spain on June 21—their tournament opener—and France on June 24, Villarreal is hopeful there will be no complications once the Americans take the field.
“I heard it’s pretty rough right now and I hope that it’s safe for us,” said Villarreal. “We’re just looking forward to being there and representing our nation.”
Yes, the challenge will be tough for the U.S. They’ll have to get past three talented nations for a chance at reaching the round of 16, but Villarreal is confident that the U.S. can shock the world.
“It’ll be tough, but it’s a good challenge for us to see where the U.S. stands against these teams,” said Villarreal. “I think that if we make it out of this group it’ll make a big statement.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com