In 10 seconds in last week’s win against Columbus, Hector Villalba showed why he may be in the best form of his life with Atlanta United.
Villalba took a pass - or was it a clearance - from Jeff Larentowicz near midfield. He blew by one defender, slalomed Bode Miller-like through two more Crew defenders and across the penalty box before swiveling back to his right and hitting a delicate left-footed shot into the lower right corner of the goal.
Villalba said it was similar to goals that he scores in the FIFA video game while playing either as himself or Miguel Almiron, though Almiron slyly said the speed isn’t exaggerated in live action as it can be in the video game. It was a video game-like goal scored with the system in easy mode.
In the past four games, Villalba has that moment, as well as four assists.
“I’m in a good moment,” he said. “I think my teammates are always on top of me, supporting me. I think the communication we have on the field is really good, and they allow me to move freely during the game and go wherever I want to go.”
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Villalba’s run-and-score may not win goal of the year in MLS, but it should be a contender. The timing couldn’t be better because Atlanta United on Friday will play at Orlando, which is where Villalba last year did hit the league’s Goal of the Year, a 35-yard laser in the final seconds that earned Atlanta United a 1-0 win.
Villalba’s form now is similar to his form then because there are so many of the same factors.
First, he is healthy. Villalba sustained injuries in the preseason that limited his training in Florida and Charleston, and his effectiveness once the season started. Through the first 15 games, Villalba scored one goal and had two assists – totaled in the 3-1 win against D.C. United – in nine appearances.
Villalba missed the next three games after another injury before coming on as a sub in a 2-0 win at Columbus in which he scored a goal. That was followed by 33 effective minutes off the bench in a 1-1 draw with Portland in which Villalba took four shots and was the team’s most dangerous player.
As he worked his way back into form, Villalba’s confidence grew. He notched an assist in a 4-0 win against Orlando City.
“Naturally confidence and sharpness grows,” Larentowicz said.
And then come one of those moments in the next game at Dallas when it was clear that a healthy and confident Villalba was finding a zone.
Taking the ball on the right wing, Villalba screwed a Dallas defender into the ground with a move, before he passed to Josef Martinez for a goal.
Dribbling wasn’t a skill that Villalba used a lot in 2017, when he was one of four players in MLS to notch at least 10 goals and 10 assists. Instead, Villalba was more about speed and power, and less about touch.
After scoring a goal in a 2-0 win at Philadelphia, Villalba used the Dallas move again in a 2-1 win at Montreal.
“I think Tito’s had them in his locker,” teammate Chris McCann said. “Maybe he’s just showing them more this year than last year. I think this season he’s shown a clean pair of heels to a couple of lads. He’s a talented kid. He’s starting to show that on a more regular basis. Not only is he quick with the ball, he’s quick without the ball. He’s very skillful.”
The other factor helping Villalba may be manager Gerardo Martino’s return to the 4-3-3 formation that puts Villalba in space on the flanks where he can take on defenders one-on-one.
Those factors – health, confidence and being on the wing – were the keys to the goal against Columbus.
“I’m happy for him,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “I thought a minute and a half earlier, he slowed up and didn’t take (Lalas) Abubakar on one-on-one in the box, and I think he thought the same thing I did, kind of disappointed. Then when he got it the very next play a minute or a minute and a half later, there was no second thought. It was ‘I’m going, I’m going one-on-one,’ and he cruised through the box past both central defenders and tucked it away. It was a fantastic finish.”