COLUMBUS, Ohio – A few folks still remember his old nickname. But the man once universally known as “Sueño” (that’s “dream” in Spanish) has more or less established a new identity in the Rose City as he concludes his second season with the Portland Timbers with Sunday’s MLS Cup showdown vs. Columbus Crew SC (4 pm ET; ESPN, WatchESPN and UniMas in the US; TSN and RDS2 in Canada).

“Actually,” said Jorge Villafaña with a warm smile under the winter sun at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday, “They stopped calling me that – they call me Jorge. But that is a thing that I’m always going to be reminded of, and it’s a good thing. You never forget where you came from. 

“You always have to remember where you came from, and I’m proud of what I came from.”

It might not seem like all that long ago to veteran MLS observers. But it’s now been more than eight years since Villafaña stepped into the spotlight as the first winner of “MLS Sueño,” the talent competition and reality show that debuted in 2007 offering thousands of aspiring young players a chance to earn a spot on Chivas USA’s first-team roster. 

Villafaña’s story is well-known by now. The Anaheim, California native with roots in Guanajuato, Mexico was first wait-listed, then eventually outpaced a field of some 2,000 contestants to get his chance with the Southern California club that was at the time enjoying the peak years of its brief, star-crossed and largely difficult existence. 

Chivas USA would finish first in the Western Conference that season, led by stars Sacha Kljestan, Brad Guzan and Claudio Suarez. But Villafaña, then 17, nonetheless earned a contract with the Goats – he’s the only “MLS Sueño” winner to have done so thus far – and soon became a regular starter, proving himself to be far more than a mere contest winner. 

“[I was] really excited when they told me, ‘You’re the winner,’” he said on Saturday when asked to recall the emotions of that fateful summer. “And then after that, practicing with the first team – things that I couldn’t believe at that time. It’s just funny, I mean, it’s almost been eight years! It’s been a pretty long time, but those memories are still fresh.”

Skilled, determined and relentless both in game action and on the training ground, “Sueño” Villafaña would go on to become Chivas USA’s longest-serving player and earned US youth national team call-ups. Yet his club was crumbling around him, and he was quietly traded to Portland after the Goats went a woeful 6-20-8 in 2013 amid swirling doubts about the future.

“That’s always going to be in my heart,” said Villafaña. “I grew up in that club, I had much love for them. Those things are always going to be in my heart.”

Less than a year later, Chivas USA ceased operations, ceding to successors Los Angeles FC, who are slated to enter MLS in 2018. 

Up in Portland, he and his young family would have to start over, too. Timbers boss Caleb Porter had first met him back in 2011, months before the two were both centrally involved in the US Under-23 national team’s stunning failure to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics. 

“It was a rough time,” Villafaña said of the qualifying debacle and the concurrent struggles at Chivas. “It’s been tough, but those moments make you grow. If you learn from them, they can take you a long way.”

Even amidst that painful experience in Nashville, Villafaña made a lasting impression on his ambitious young coach, who he now considers a friend.

“Honestly, I knew nothing about him,” Porter told The Oregonian earlier this year. “But over time, I just started to like him. He just grows on you because he works hard every day. He’s scrappy, probably because he’s had to fight for everything in his career.”

Porter converted Villafaña from a wide midfielder into a left back, and he struggled for playing time during the transition – only to blossom into a regular last summer when starter Michael Harrington went down injured. Now he’s one of PTFC’s most trusted players, and a fan favorite to boot, just as he was for Chivas USA’s few but deeply committed supporters. 

After years of playing in front of sparse crowds at StubHub Center, few appreciate the constant sellouts and cascading waves of noise at Providence Park more than “Sueño.”

“They’re the fans that are always cheering for you no matter what. You lose, you win, they’re always behind you, they always support you. And I’m really happy for them,” he said on Saturday as thousands of Timbers faithful descended on Columbus to witness their team’s first MLS Cup appearance.

“You feel the love, you feel what they’re doing to support their team,” Villafaña added of his club’s traveling hordes. “When we go away, even though we have [fewer] fans, you can hear them chanting. It really does help that we’re going to have some [away] support.”

While his rise from reality-show winner to MLS Cup combatant has an irresistible storybook quality, the 26-year-old believes there are more – many more – just like him in the United States’ huge Latino population. And he recognizes his position as a role model, not only for the teenagers walking the path that brought him to this point, but for a US soccer community now yearning to better connect with a long-overlooked demographic. Meanwhile, in the years following his triumph, “MLS Sueño” has grown into a multi-city event with nationwide reach.  

“Yeah, I can say that I’m a really big example,” Villafaña said. “At that time that I did the tryouts, there was a lot of talent, a lot of young talent, and I think there is a lot of Latino talent around that is waiting to be discovered.

“The league’s still growing, and those are the little things in the future that are probably going to get better. You’re going to see a lot more players coming up.”

The club that put him on the map has shuffled into history’s footnotes, and Villafaña himself continues to fight for respect – as evidenced by Crew SC winger Ethan Finlay’s open excitement at matching up with him in Sunday’s final

But win or lose, “Sueño” and his dreams will march on. His steady displays for Portland have even earned attention from south of the border, with Liga MX clubs Pachuca and Santos Laguna reportedly interested in him.

“Yeah, it’s been a journey. [Chivas USA] was a club that saw me grow as a kid, as a player. When those things happen, it’s tough when you see the team leave,” he said on Saturday. “But bad things happen. Now I’m happy in Portland and I’ve been doing great. We just hope we are better tomorrow and we lift the trophy.”

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