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Digging Deeper: Hector “Tito” Villalba is a true rags to riches story

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Here’s his inspirational backstory

@Trendeportivo

"You have to look back to know where you stand." -Hector Villalba to the children of 1-11-14

La Villa 1-11-14 is in Bajo Flores in Buenos Aires. It is located in front of San Lorenzo’s El Nuevo Gasómetro stadium. It is a populous villa that is home to one of the largest makets of paco, a street drug similar to crack cocaine. It is also where Hector Villalba grew up, dreaming of joining San Lorenzo. Those boyhood dreams became a reality and now Tito leaves as an icon that will not be forgotten in the club’s history.

Villalba joined San Lorenzo’s youth academy at 10 years old after being noticed at a tryout. He told Dirty South Soccer through an interpreter:

"I lived right in front of the club. I was a huge fan of San Lorenzo. At ten years old, I did a tryout with 500 other kids, that's where my journey began as a player."

He steadily moved up the ranks, earning his debut with the first team on August 19, 2012 as a substitute at 18 years old against Estudiantes. He made a few more substitute appearances before earning a start on April 13, 2013 at home against Racing. He then did this:

"He made the best goal I've seen live on a football stadium against Racing." - San Lorenzo fan Francisco Fourcade

When you score a goal like that, a goal that is compared to the great Diego Maradona effort from the 1986 World Cup or Lionel Messi’s similar run with Barcelona, you become an idol. When that goal is your first as a professional after growing up in the neighborhood across the street, you become a part of that club forever.

In his first season, he played often as a forward before moving out to the right later in his career at San Lorenzo. As you can see from his debut goal, his speed will be a handful for opposing teams in MLS.

"He is a fast forward with great skills and good in counter attacks. He is not a classic number 9 who scores a lot of goals, but he can create lots of chances and open holes on rival defenses. And of course, he can provide assists." -Fourcade

Villalba told Dirty South Soccer:

"When we get a coach, we'll see where he wants to play me. My job is to help the team."

Villalba played in 110 matches for San Lorenzo, scoring 16 times with 13 assists. 22 of those games came in South American competition in Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana.

He played 48 times for San Lorenzo from August of 2013 through August of 2014, culminating in the club’s first ever Copa Libertadores title. His cross opened the scoring for San Lorenzo in the two legged final against Nacional of Paraguay.

Villalba was part of three trophies at San Lorenzo, but nothing can top the illustrious Copa Libertadores in 2014. San Lorenzo has had many great teams in their 100+ year history, but the 2014 edition brought the Copa Libertadores trophy to the club for the first time.

@Siempre_Ciclon

2016 has been a rough time on the field for Villalba, he did not mesh well with manager Pablo Guede and did not see much time on the field. His contract was due to end in December and he was mentioned in many transfer rumors. Some of his prospective suitors over the years included Villarreal, AC Milan, Real Betis, and Fiorentina.

A move to Boca Juniors looked very likely earlier this summer, however it did not go through. One reason it did not happen is that Villalba did not want to move to San Lorenzo’s rivals. He also wanted San Lorenzo to make money in a transfer by moving him now, as opposed to leaving on a free transfer at the end of his contract. As a player who joined the club at ten years old, Villalba obviously wanted to leave San Lorenzo in a better place through his transfer.

From the outpouring of emotion from people close to the club, it is obvious how much Villalba means to San Lorenzo. That feeling is obviously mutual when he speaks about Pipi Romagnoli, the 35 year old midfielder and symbol of the team.

"The one I admire most is an idol of mine, Romagnoli is one of the biggest influences for me. Just the respect he has for the game. He is one of the principal founders of what I am all about. He's been on top of me for the last four years, and a lot of obviously good things have happened in those four years."

Romagnoli is very proud of Villalba's success, as he told Siempre Ciclón, a leading website covering San Lorenzo. He said that Villalba is a "great kid" and "an example and a reference for many of the kids who live in the barrio in front of the club." Villalba has always had "the capacity to set goals and achieve them" and the "entire squad and people who work at the club wish all the best for this new stage."

The fans of San Lorenzo are overwhelmingly happy for Villalba and have wished him well in this move. They respected that he signed a new contract in 2014 and did not leave on a free transfer when teams were bidding for him. They were excited that he did not go to Boca Juniors and has said that the only team he will play for in Argentina is San Lorenzo. They love that the kid from across the street will be part of their club’s history forever.

"As fans we respect him, he used to live in the villa (like brazilian favelas) that is in front of San Lorenzo stadium." - Fourcade

You’re an example. The kid who worked hard and leaves like an idol, we look forward to your return.

It is fitting that one of the last things Villalba did in Argentina before coming to Atlanta was organize an event benefiting the kids of Villa 1-11-14. As his time at San Lorenzo would down, he recognized the power of his presence to the next generation:

"That's what I've been doing this past year, supporting the academy and younger levels. There's a lot of need for the kids where I'm from, in their homes and their conditions. It's important to keep them on the right road and to be able to help them."

He crossed a street and entered into history.