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 By Tom Marshall

Jorge Villafana trying hard to get over U.S. disappointment with Santos

TORREON, Mexico -- Jorge Villafana wriggles uncomfortably and looks into the distance when asked about that night in Couva last October, when the Stars and Stripes' 2018 World Cup dream died against Trinidad & Tobago. It clearly still haunts him.

On the surface, it seems the 28-year-old U.S. international has been able to compartmentalize the disappointment. It certainly hasn't affected his club career: He's earned a starting spot in defense and been part of Santos Laguna's resurgence in this Clausura. And Villafana is set to play against Tigres on Thursday in the playoff quarterfinal first leg as Los Guerreros attempt to lift their sixth Liga MX championship.

But with his teammate Nestor Araujo's battle to be fit for Mexico's squad at Russia 2018 the focus of much attention in Torreon, the subject of the upcoming World Cup is still sour for Villafana.

"[Going to the World Cup] is the dream of all professional soccer players, to represent your country," Villafana told ESPN FC in a recent interview. "And when you go with the national team [now], you go play but you're not preparing for anything. You're helping other teams for the World Cup. It's not easy.

"[It's] something you learn from and have to live with for the rest of your life. It hasn't been easy. It'll never go away, but I'll try to get it out of my mind after the World Cup."

Since the loss to Trinidad & Tobago, Villafana has played two games under interim U.S. coach Dave Sarachan and has been one of only five players -- along with DeAndre Yedlin, Paul Arriola, Darlington Nagbe and Kellyn Acosta -- to form the bridge between that Oct. 10 failure and the next generation of players on display in the three games since.

Villafana says he'll always be "honored" to represent the United States, and his rise to a position of importance with the U.S. national team is worth recounting, given the debate surrounding the future of the Stars and Stripes and soccer in general north of the border.

Villafana -- who prefers his mother's last name, although in Mexico commentators often use Flores -- was born in the United States, raised in the state of Guanajuato in Mexico and went back to California as a 15-year-old and attended Anaheim High School. The young Villafana excelled on the school's soccer team and also played for Santa Ana DSP in the Coast Soccer League.

It was on his uncle's urging that he attended the inaugural 2007 Sueno MLS, a talent search that rewards the best player with a spot on an MLS academy team. Villafana won it, and from there he trained with Chivas USA's under-19s and established himself in the first team.

But the transition from club and high school soccer to the professional game wasn't an easy one for Villafana, who says he had little real coaching growing up.

"I started first going with [Chivas USA's] U-19s but it's complicated, different, when you haven't played any systems they tell you," he recalled. "That's what young players need, they need coaching. I already had a good understanding of soccer, and that really helped, but those are the things you learn. You need to be taught, that's what the coaches are there for."

Sat inside the plush facilities at Santos' Estadio Corona, Villafana chats excitedly about the opportunities the youngsters at the club's academy receive; opportunities he didn't get until winning Sueno MLS.

And while there is talk in America about players falling through the cracks in the soccer pyramid and a mystery as to who will become the U.S. men's national team's general manager and head coach, Villafana believes youth production in the States is on the right path.

Asked if MLS clubs should replicate Liga MX's structure, the bilingual left-back says it is already happening.

"The thing is that they're trying to do that already," he said. "When I started playing in MLS when I was 18, ten years ago, not all the teams had academies and it wasn't mandatory. So they are starting to do it now, and they've got second teams. They even have a league for them. That helps because it helps develops your football. Back then, if you didn't play with the first team you didn't have anywhere else to play."

Villafana found his way from winning the MLS Cup with Portland in 2015 to a spot with Santos, and he says that players in Mexico ask him regularly about what it's like playing in MLS. He's also quick to dispel any lingering doubts about the northern league's quality when they do inquire.

"MLS is not an easy league," Villafana said. "People who think it is an easy league maybe don't watch soccer.

"It's grown a lot over the last few years ... the amount of money they are putting into clubs and in bringing players, players that bring experience. Maybe kids look up to them, and those players make the league. But you see Toronto, and for me they are the best team in the league, how they play. [They are] well worked. They know how they want to play."

For Villafana, the chance to become one of just a handful players to win both MLS and Liga MX titles is on the horizon should Santos -- who finished fourth in the regular season -- capture the Clausura crown. The quarterfinal against reigning champion Tigres promises to be difficult, but then overcoming long odds has pretty much defined Villafana's career.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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