BRIAN SCIARETTA - Monday, February 18, 2013
With the US U-20 national team set to open World Cup qualifying on Monday against Haiti, Jose Villarreal is excited for the task ahead.
Over the past year, Villarreal has emerged as the team's best goal scorer and now he will look to translate his past success into the important and crucial games that lie ahead.
"We're all pretty focused on what we want to do," Villarreal told YA from Mexico. "We're concentrated on our first game against Haiti. We're not looking past anyone right now. I think we'll be fine."
Villarreal and the U.S team are currently drawn into Group A along with Haiti and Costa Rica. If the U.S. finishes first or second in their group, they will take on either Canada, Cuba, or Nicaragua in an all-important quarterfinal where the winner qualifies for this summer's World Cup in Turkey.
There is increased pressure on this U.S. U-20 team ahead of qualifying due to recent failures of other U.S. youth national teams. In 2011 the U.S U-20 team failed to qualify for the World Cup when it lost the quarterfinal game to Guatemala in Guatemala City. In 2011, the U.S. U-23 team was unsuccessful in qualifying for the Olympics when it could not even advance out of group play.
Villarreal, however, is confident ahead of qualifying and is not thinking about the disappointments of other U.S teams.
"Of course we're aware of it," Villarreal explained. "But I think we've got a good team here and we'll do fine. There were good players in the last cycle but we've done well this cycle with this coaching staff."
2012 was a good year for Villarreal who not only emerged as a key player with the U.S. U-20's but also broke into the first team at the LA Galaxy towards the end of the season. As a Southern California native, playing for the Galaxy gave Villarreal the chance to play close to home alongside star veterans like Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Robbie Keane.
For Villarreal, he believes that playing alongside players of that calibre has helped him improve.
"I've definitely improved playing with the veteran guys back in LA," Villarreal explained. "It definitely helped me out. It's good and I'm in a good spot. I'm taking everything I can from them. It's a learning experience because you're always playing at a high level. I think I've improved a lot."
One of the key aspects of the game that Villarreal has learned with the Galaxy that he hopes will translate over into the U-20s is his ability to switch off between positions during the course of the game.
With the US U-20 team playing a brand of soccer that emphasizes attacking soccer out of a 4-3-3 formation, Villarreal things his strengths as a player will help the team.
"It's easy to fit in with these players here," Villarreal said. "They like to keep the ball on the ground and that's my style of play. I feel really comfortable. I'm playing wide right but I usually switch off and rotate centrally. I think that's why we're such a good team. We each can play a lot of positions."
So as the tournament is set to kickoff, Villarreal is looking forward to his first major competition in a U.S uniform. Growing up in California to Mexican parents, he often thought about playing for Mexico growing up but that appears to be a dream of the past.
U.S U-20 head coach Tab Ramos has made Villarreal a key component of his team's attack and Villarreal appreciates the confidence showed to him by the U.S program.
"I'm just focused on playing with the US right now," Villarreal concluded. "I've dropped that option of playing with Mexico to focus on this US team. I feel in debt to the U.S. Soccer federation because they've done a lot for me and I feel like I should prove myself to them and give them what I've got."