PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Timbers defender Jorge Villafana was just a kid in high school when he got a shot at reality show stardom.
Villafana’s uncle signed him up for the first Sueno MLS, or Dream MLS, essentially a made-for-TV tryout to play in the league. In 2007, the prize was a shot at Chivas USA’s under-19 team.
For Villafana, it was Survivor-esque. He beat out 1,900 hopefuls to win the contest and later that year he was signed to an MLS contract with Chivas.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“It gave me the opportunity to be what I wanted. It gave me the opportunity to become a professional soccer player. Every kid who loves soccer, it’s the dream to play at the highest level,” Villafana said. “Sueno MLS gave me that opportunity.”
The California native, nicknamed Sueno for obvious reasons, now plays at left back for the Timbers, who visit Sporting Kansas City in the second leg of the Western Conference finals on Thursday night. The two teams played to a scoreless draw in the opening leg last Sunday. Villafana nearly scored in the opening match, but his shot early in the game caromed off the post.
It is Villafana’s second stint with the Timbers. He was also on the team that won the 2015 MLS Cup.
Villafana’s career path is something of a league legend. Not only did his Sueno MLS turn earn him a spot on a team, but since then he’s also played in Liga MX and has become a regular on the U.S. national team. He was on the U.S. roster for the team’s two recent exhibition matches against England and Italy.
Villafana was a high school senior when he tried out for Sueno MLS. Known then as Jorge Flores, he seized the opportunity as the youngest player on the under-19 Chivas team and caught the eye of the club’s top level coach, Predrag Radosavljevic.
“I always wanted to be a professional soccer player, so when the opportunity came up I looked at a possible way to become a professional,” said Villafana, who changed his last name later in his career to honor his mother. “It turned out to be a good one.”
Villafana went on to appear in 86 matches with now-defunct Chivas before he was traded to the Timbers in 2013. He made 50 starts with Portland and played an important role in the team’s 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup.
“It’s always amazing when you are able to raise a trophy, and that was the first time I was able to do it, and the first time in club history. It was an amazing feeling,” he said. “But it never gets old, every time you get to lift a trophy it’s like you’ve never done it before.”
Following the championship season, Villafana was sold to Santos Laguna in Liga MX, making 53 appearances with the club before getting re-acquired by the Timbers in August. He also won a title in that league.
In May, Villafana and his wife were robbed after exchanging currency at a mall in the city of Torreon, Mexico, where Villafana was for the Liga MX final. His team went on to win the league’s Clausura championship.
“I think it was time for me and my family to come back,” Villafana said. “When I left to go to Mexico, if I ever came back it was going to be to Portland — and luckily they did everything possible to bring me back.”
He said he and his wife and their three small children are content in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s amazing. I love it, my family loves it. The fans are incredible. And the club is always in a good position to win,” he said. “So it’s perfect.”