David Villa has built the foundations for NYCFC, on the pitch and off
As David Villa rattled in goals Nos. 50 and 51 in his New York City FC career, the club's social media team, long prepared for this inevitable moment, sprung into action with a series of highlight clips, graphs and stats meant to illustrate the magnitude of his achievement in hitting that mark.
And it is a truly noteworthy moment; 51 goals in 78 games is a prodigious return, even if you factor in 14 of them being penalties. But it was one of the less showy stats put out by the club that hints at what makes Villa's accomplishment truly special: Villa has scored in every month of the club's competitive existence.
And it's that fact -- the relentless, functional presence of Villa in an NYCFC jersey -- that is at least as important an element for the team's foundational mythology as the caliber or quantity of the goals he has scored.
Because make no mistake, with a stadium in limbo and fellow designated players Frank Lampard (who retired after the 2016 season) and Andrea Pirlo intermittent and enigmatic presences, respectively, the early days of NYCFC needed a player with a constant high-profile presence, and tangibly important contributions, to establish any sort of corresponding presence in a city where it's all too easy for concrete promises to turn to vapor. Villa has provided that quality and then some, scoring in the team's first home game and never letting up.
Of course, he's been way more than a placeholder. In fact, in the early incarnation of the team, Villa looked like he occupied every job in the village, popping up wide on the wing or deep in the attacking half to win the ball and try to advance attacks he'd then be looking to get on the end of. If anything, at times Villa looked like he was doing too much.
But as NYCFC have evolved, with supporting cast members such as Jack Harrison and Maxi Moralez helping the team evolve into what Patrick Vieira wants his team to be, Villa has been able to concentrate on being a more direct threat in the final third and in the box in particular. The team's possession-heavy game may still be built with Villa as the ultimate preferred outlet, but a casual viewer is less likely to come away with an impression that Villa looks to be taking balls off his teammates' toes.
That hustle served its purpose, though; Villa's conspicuous blue-collar effort had a cultural as well as technical value early on. With detractors around the league all too ready to dismiss NYCFC as "plastic" or "Chivas USA 2.0," the conspicuous honest effort of their main playing asset showed that whatever NYCFC's reputation would cement itself to be, a world-class talent was prepared to be visibly associated with it. And that mattered.
It mattered too when Villa, frustrated at his lack of English skills, worked hard at taking English lessons in his first year, in part so that he could speak more readily with the media. With Pirlo barely speaking English and being a naturally diffident media presence, and Lampard, despite his genuine persona, still coming out of the stonewalling player/media tradition of the English game, Villa's recognition of what was needed and willingness to do something about it was truly valuable in helping shape a positive context for the team.
It has come at a certain price, of course. If Villa's reputation was going to be so inextricably linked with a team, he wasn't going to sell his loyalty cheaply. The late, awkward arrivals of Lampard and Pirlo were often cited as instrumental in Jason Kreis's demise as the first head coach of the team, but don't underestimate what Villa's sense of ownership in the project did to make Kreis' position ultimately untenable. Like David Beckham with LA and Thierry Henry with the Red Bulls, once the personal stakes were raised and the challenge accepted, there was always the potential for casualties like Kreis.
But then again, the best DPs in this experiment's decadelong history have often sent cultural ripples running through the organizations they play for, especially when it becomes apparent that leading by example on the field is not enough. And it's fair enough that Villa, recognizing that he would be judged, asked all around him to accept being judged at an elevated standard too.
And he's consistently delivered while being judged. Look at that "scored in every month" stat again. On the surface it might seem the least impressive aspect of his 51-goal haul, but it's crucial for what NYCFC have become. Consider last year's brief summer surge of Lampard that briefly, and perfectly credibly, had him in the running for MVP. Now consider the period before Lampard arrived, the period when his goals dried up again, and now the period after he's left.
Villa was scoring throughout that time.
The stadium may still be a dream, but Villa has already built the foundations on which one of Major League Soccer's crown-jewel clubs will rest.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.