David Villa stood far from the hills of Spain. Last Thursday, when Villa scoped Macombs Dam Park in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City, other than the familiarity of a soccer field, the view was different. He did not see the Mediterranean Sea, bullfighters or paella. Instead, he saw the concrete jungles of New York, the backdrop of Yankee Stadium and a group of American children.
After participating in a clinic with the youngsters from South Bronx United, Villa hosted a Q&A session. Half of the children asked questions in English with the other half in Spanish.
For Villa, who answered English questions with a translator, the Spanish-speaking presence could only be soothing. Villa, 32, is the all-time leading goal scorer in Spain National Team history with 59 tallies in 97 caps. He has played in three World Cups and started at center forward in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands. After 15 professional seasons in Spain, the Spanish legend found himself in front of a new group of youthful fans an ocean away. But it did not seem so foreign.
"He's very well-aware of the Hispanic community in New York," says Claudio Reyna, New York City FC Sporting Director, an American of Argentine and Portuguese descent. "He's here to play soccer, but obviously there's the addition of him being really recognized and a top player."
Villa signed with NYCFC on June 1 to become the club's first player. Just eight days earlier, he started at center forward in the UEFA Champions League Final for Atlético Madrid. Villa's 185 goals are 11th all-time in La Liga, the first decision in Spain.
Villa walked away from one of the world's top teams in one of the world's top leagues to come to a club with no history whatsoever. He moved to a city far from the likes of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and the other Spanish cities Villa starred in, and he did it with his talent still on the table.
Yet, there Villa was standing in front of a stadium known for béisbol, not fútbol.
"You can't really second-guess it," Villa says. "The attraction to the project from the beginning was being one of the first players."
It is no surprise Villa calls NYCFC a "project." Along with Reyna, head coach Jason Kreis, fellow European hero Frank Lampard and a marketing message of being New York City's next big thing, NYCFC is a remarkable work in progress. Villa and Lampard are more than just two players coming to play soccer. They are coming to build the sport in the most populated city of the world's wealthiest nation. NYCFC will debut in the 2015 MLS season.
"I want to make NYCFC start off with a winning legacy," Villa says. "That's something important. I will do whatever I can to make it happen."
Villa has an obvious barrier to American media and fans: Language. After spending his entire career in his home country of Spain, Villa lacks communication skills in the United States. For the time being, he needs a translator.
Between NYCFC's two current megastars, Lampard, an Englishman, will be the louder voice by default. Two weeks ago, when announced as NYCFC's fourth player, Lampard stared down the media, both English and American. He declared his desire to turn NYCFC into a winner while showing respect for his old English club, Chelsea. It was the kind of opening press conference only legends formulate.
But Villa's intensity can convey a message despite his lack of English.
"David's fiery too," Reyna says. "He was the most competitive guy on the Spanish National Team. He'll start a fight over a game of cards."
Reyna says management will keep the Spanish-speaking reporters close to Villa. On Thursday, a variety of reporters made their way to the park just to watch the Spanish star knock around a ball with kids.
"He's going to learn English, but for right now, he'll be doing more of the Spanish press. I think that'll naturally happen," Reyna says.
— David Villa (@Guaje7Villa) July 31, 2014
Reyna commends Villa's professionalism and commitment to NYCFC. During the Lampard press conference, Reyna and Kreis explained they look for both on and off-the-field characteristics in their signees. Lampard and Villa both passed their tests. Both come with the maturity to focus bringing the team wins and bringing the club public recognition. After all, Villa was the usual center forward for one of the greatest soccer dynasties of all-time: Spain's 2008-2012 team.
On Thursday, Villa was asked to engage with children in Macombs Dam Park. He was not hesitant to spread the NYCFC name to the youngsters.
"I was a child. I know how important it is to give back and teach them from the beginning the right way to play," Villa says.
Although Villa is not from Latin America, as many of the Spanish speakers in New York City, and specifically the Bronx, are, he understands the common language makes him a role model.
"He's beloved in Spain because he's a kid who worked his way up," Reyna says. "I think you'll the human side of him. He'll be able to connect to the Hispanic community. He's one of them. He's humble. He wants to meet them. That's what's great. He's here to not only play, but also part of the reason why he wanted to come over was to help build the club."
There is no doubt Villa could have found a home in Spain or any other major European league. While he may not be the striker he once was, the footballer can still strike gold more than most other forwards..
But Villa wanted something different. After all, he had accomplished nearly everything possible in Spain. The U.S. brought new challenges. He is in a new setting with new players, new supporters and new on-field expectations.
Most importantly, he is the first player for a new super sports franchise.
“The vision of City Football Group was enticing, but to be the first player in that vision was even more so,” Villa said. City Football Group, which owns Manchester City F.C. and a majority stake in Melbourne City F.C., owns 80 percent of NYCFC. Yankee Global Enterprises owns the other 20 percent.
Such a statement does not make Villa is arrogance. His emotions were recently seen as he sobbed to the sidelines in his final game as a Spanish national in the 2014 World Cup. Villa announced he would retire from international play after the tournament.
Villa was asked if he has consulted anyone on what it means to be a star athlete in New York. He shuddered.
"I don't consider myself a star," he says. "I consider myself part of the team. I'm ready for whatever comes my way."
With Villa and Lampard in a New York State of Mind and other international stars moving to MLS -- Kaká, Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane to name a few -- the league is in a good place. Soccer is rising in popularity in the U.S. thanks to television access, American success at the World Cup and video games.
Villa calls Lampard a "legend" who he is excited to mesh styles with. The duo will likely be joined by a third designated player by kickoff 2015. One name rumored to ponder a move to NYCFC is Xavi, Villa's former teammate with Spain and FC Barcelona. Another is former Spain teammate Fernando Torres, who also played with Lampard at Chelsea.
Villa actually spoke to Torres last Wednesday, but not about soccer.
"We're family friends, so it was more of a family matter," Villa says. "We're great friends though."
The influx of international names into the MLS mix only encourages each of the team's to try to one-up each other. This friendly competition is boosting the level of play and brand name of MLS. Each team has to keep pace to compete.
As a sporting director, Reyna is excited by this. He believes the players are into it too.
"The level of players that they are, they want to beat the other teams with those players. There's a competitive drive," he says.
Villa considers himself a fan just as much as he considers himself a player. He claims to follow leagues outside of Spain with an eye long watching MLS.
Now, Villa has entered that new world outside of La Liga. His potential is high -- to be a trailblazer for Spanish players and non-English-speaking stars in MLS -- but he also has the potential to be a bust, a past-his-prime international who cannot get acclimated to the foreign flavor of MLS. Villa has mind focused on goals, physically and figuratively right now.
"I want to leave a winning legacy and one of hard work and determination that will make people remember the name David Villa," he says.
With the 2015 MLS season still seven months away from opening, Villa will go on loan to Melbourne City. On Wednesday (today), NYCFC announced Lampard will go on loan to Manchester City. Both will be back in January to join NYCFC.
While the stars focus on staying fit at their temporary clubs, Reyna, Kreis and NYCFC management will remain focused on building a roster. The club still only has five players and has a long way to go before March.
With that said, the dreams are big. NYCFC has a city of $8 million at its fingertips and is starting play at the mecca of baseball venues. When introducing Lampard, Kreis said he wants NYCFC to not only be a competitor in the United States, but at the world level.
Reyna's mentality is similar. He grew up in nearby Livingston, N.J., and the concrete jungles inspire him.
"With our name and New York City -- it's the world's capital -- there's something special about this city," Reyna says. "This club if we're going to be recognizable, we have a way's go. I believe our dream is to one day be a team that competes at the international level. I think there's such an interest in New York City. There are big dreams, but what it comes down to is what we do on the field."
What NYCFC does on and off the field will start with its center forward. David Villa is one of the greatest players of all-time and now, the Big Apple is his playground.
"I'm ready to play," he says. "I'm ready for the hard work. I'm dedicated."
He needs to be all of those things and more if he wants to build a legacy in American soccer. If he succeeds, NYCFC will become an internationally-recognized name.
And David Villa's name will be one to remember.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.