What it was like to cover NYCFC star David Villa
David Villa sat squished in a middle seat of a commercial flight from JFK to LAX.
He sat there for six hours when I traveled with New York City FC on a trip to Los Angeles in 2017 and got a behind-the-scenes look at how the team operates on the road. Sitting in the row opposite to Villa, a World Cup winner with Spain in 2010, I understood what this entire MLS experience meant to him, the camaraderie with teammates to sit in commercial when he certainly would be allowed to fly in first-class.
How Villa found himself between two people was an example of his grace. He gave up his initial seat so a family could sit together for the entire flight. And while other teammates listened to music, watched Netflix or napped, Villa kept the overhead light on and was reading from a Spanish textbook, where he left notes in the margins and highlighted passages as he studied the game from a different angle. He never wanted me to report what he was reading, and we’ll keep it that way.
Ask any reporter who covered Villa over the last four years, and they’ll have their own story about his character, which is why NYCFC is going to have a hard time replacing Villa — on and off the field.
On the pitch, he’ll be remembered arguably as MLS’ best ever Designated Player. Forget the postseason failures; you cannot win with just one person. Villa, a World Cup winner with Spain in 2010, tallied 80 goals and 26 assists across 124 total competitions in four seasons, appeared in four All-Star Games and won the league’s MVP award in 2016. He played through injury and didn’t want to stop even as he approaches age 37 next week, which is why he is going to play in Japan next year.
He made it feel like an honor to play for NYCFC. He celebrated every goal like it was his first against the Revolution back on a cold March day in 2015. He did it with a smile as wide as Yankee Stadium’s pitch. His enthusiasm didn’t end under the lights.
He carried the same joy away from the game, too.
My first interactions with Villa were over the phone for an interview as the team participated in preseason down in Florida. He wanted to speak about the team’s preparation and his contract situation. I thought the interview would be through a translator, but Villa was adamant about doing it on his own in English. He didn’t seek NYCFC’s press officer’s help while carrying out the 20-minute interview. His answers were sharp and calculated and not PR-fed, either.
Villa wasn’t required to learn English, but he wanted to. It was his way of ingraining himself in the New York community.
In the locker room, Villa showed himself as the professional and the dad. Whether it was English or Spanish, he fielded most questions asked during press conferences. When he was away from the microphone, he was playing with his son, Luca, on the floor of the clubhouse after matches, with the two kicking around a mini soccer ball and the press were herded out.
He was never going to be provocative or blame any individual player for a poor performance. If anything, he would take the blame or say it was a collective effort. He was patient with reporters interested in more than NYCFC, like the Spanish national team or how Barcelona was doing. He would usually end his press conference with a simple “gracias” in his native tongue.
For the most part, Villa made life easy, but he could also be difficult. After a bad match, he often ducked out early to avoid speaking to the media when it was his voice that needed to be heard. Still, he adapted to the atmosphere better than most European players who come to an open locker room and are hesitant speaking toward the media. He certainly embraced it better than any other superstar at NYCFC.
With NYCFC now entertaining what appears to be their biggest identity crisis yet, with no true stars, another playoff dud and no concrete plans for a stadium, they have to find a way to replace Villa.
Good luck with that.