Before New York City Football Club had uniforms or a fan base, or an academy, or any semblance of a footballing identity, they had David Villa.
The decorated Spanish striker became the club’s first-ever player on June 2, 2014. He joined as the Spanish national teams all-time leading goal scorer, a World Cup winner in 2010, and a winner of both La Liga and the UEFA Champions League.
Villa’s stature in MLS was larger than life. He was the latest in a new wave of aging European stars who sought career renaissances in Major League Soccer.
Almost four and a half years later, Villa announced on Wednesday that he is leaving NYCFC, and MLS. While he won’t retire, his journey in the United States has come to an end.
And what a journey it was. Villa didn’t just exceed expectations in MLS. He shattered them.
Following Villa’s arrival, the league started to shift away from aging European stars, and more towards younger, lesser known attacking talent from South America. A reason for this change, perhaps, is two of Villa’s NYCFC teammates — Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard — were unable to adjust to the American game at their older age.
Even with an influx in younger designated players, Villa thrived in MLS despite playing well into his mid-thirties. In 124 MLS matches, he tallied 80 goals for NYCFC, leading them to three playoff berths, and claiming 2016 MLS Most Valuable Player honors.
Right off the bat, Villa made an instant impact, scoring 18 times in NYCFC’s inaugural season, including the first ever goal at Yankee Stadium.
In 2016, Villa tallied 23 goals, leading NYCFC to their first ever playoff berth, and winning MVP honors along the way.
In 2017, the Spaniard scored 24 goals in all competitions as NYCFC again finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Villa had his fair share of terrific moments. A hat trick in a pulsating Hudson River derby, the opening goal at the Stadium versus the Revolution, an audacious chip from midfield against the Union, to name just a few.
He finished his MLS career with four All-Star selections in four years, 80 goals, 26 assists, and 18 game-winning goals.
But most importantly, he was the club’s first signing, and their first captain. He has been the face of the franchise for almost the entirety of its existence, and moves on to Japan with an unassailable legacy in MLS despite ultimately failing to win the club their first ever MLS Cup.
“I truly believe that David will be remembered as one of the best players to ever play in MLS. He will forever be a legend amongst all of our wonderful supporters and everyone here at NYCFC wishes David nothing but the best in the remainder of his career. He will always be a part of NYCFC,” said Claudio Reyna, the club’s sporting director.
Villa’s loss, from a footballing sense, may not be as important as one may think. He struggled to stay on the field this year due to various injuries, scoring 15 goals in 23 matches, his lowest career mark in MLS.
The emphasis of the team has clearly shifted away from Villa, as other players such as Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi stepped into more prominent roles this year.
Essentially, now more than ever, the time was right for Villa and NYCFC to part ways, and they do so with nothing but fond memories.
Here’s to David Villa, a man who despite swimming against the current when it came to the direction of the league in regards to designated players, played every match with his heart on his sleeve, and produced at a high level in the biggest moments.
Both Major League Soccer and New York City Football Club’s profiles have been elevated significantly since Villa put ink to paper in 2014, and both the league and club have the Spaniard to thank.
Adios, el Guaje.
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