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In Defense of Tito Villalba

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Someone had to file the dissenting opinion

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MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

Hector Villalba has been a hot topic in my experience talking to Atlanta United fans on Twitter, in the Dirty South Soccer writers’ Slack chat, in the terraces (oh wait, no I haven’t because we haven’t played a game at home in FORTY DAYS)… y’know, the metaphoric terraces. He’s also been a hot topic on our favorite Atlanta United-themed podcast, The Mouths of the South, hosted by Sam Franco, Eric Quintana and Josh Bagriansky. Before I go any further, I suggest you go subscribe to the podcast, or at least listen to the last episode.

The discussion surrounding Tito Villalba piqued my interest. It got me so engaged, I was instinctively talking back to my car speakers only to realize no one could hear me. You see, Tito is the perfect player to have #takes about, because he’s so frustratingly close to being a great player. Let me start there. I agree with Eric and Josh (the primary critics of Tito on this episode) with at least one point, which is that Villalba is not a well-rounded player, and over the last four games, he could’ve produced more. Again, please listen to the episode of the podcast to understand the full context of both Eric and Josh’s critiques, but to me it boiled down to 1) his lack of technical ability with the ball and 2) that he should be better adept at these things considering he’s a Designated Player, meaning he’s a “max contract” against the salary cap.

“I'd like some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective”

When we talk about Tito Villalba, or any player really, it’s important to consider the context around which we frame our arguments. One of the criticisms laid at Villalba is that he’s a DP, so he should be better on the ball than he’s shown. But not all DP’s are created equal, especially in this case, and I’m not talking about their salaries.

Tito signed with Atlanta in the summer of last year in what must have felt like a dive into unknown waters. Here you have a 21-year-old kid in a new country (he actually didn’t arrive in the States until early this year), joining a brand new club that hasn’t played a game yet and only has a handful of players on the roster. Notably he was signed before Tata Martino was hired as manager, someone who could attract higher quality players to sign with the club. Atlanta were in a more disadvantageous position when trying to sign players like Villalba, and the club had to pay a premium to get players to take that leap of faith. Villalba isn’t the only unlikely high earner at the club (earning $771k per year according to numbers released this week by the MLS Players Union). It's no coincidence that the other players who would fit this category are Chris McCann (568k) and Kenwyne Jones ($413k), players signed B.T. (before Tata). Compare that with some of the players who came after Martino’s arrival, like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez ($285k) and Yamil Asad ($150k), and you can see the difference.

But, nonetheless, he’s a DP. So if you expect all your DPs to give you a certain amount of production, then so be it. But I think he’s done that too.

“Only the fearless can be great”

I said it earlier, but I’ll write it again, Tito is not a technically gifted player. We’ve seen many examples of him losing the ball cheaply this season, but this past weekend in Sandy, Utah really took the cake. He made a mess of two great chances in which he’d run past the defensive line and was in on goal 1v1 in a wide area. In one instance, he passed up a chance to cross to an unmarked Kenwyne Jones, and in the other he fired in a cross way too hard to Yamil Asad that killed a chance. But he also scored in the game. However, he was even criticized for the goal because he didn’t score on his initial shot, instead burying the rebound that came right back to him.

That’s crazy to criticize him for that. He made a great run and beat his man to the back post! And this is the problem with Tito. What frustrates us so much is that he’s so gifted physically, “if only his technical ability were close to matching that level, he’d be amazing.” Well yes, but the fact is that while we all wish he was amazing — and he very well might be some day — he’s still effective with the tools currently at his disposal.

No matter what you think of Tito’s play style or ability, you can’t deny his production, scoring four goals and assisting twice through seven games. The reason he’s been able to remain productive despite his technical shortcomings is twofold. One is that, with Josef Martinez out of the lineup, Villalba has been relied upon to fill the scoring void, to the point where Martino started him at striker twice. In filling this role, he’s able to use his primary strengths, his speed and his awareness to anticipate a pass, to maximum capacity to get himself in goalscoring positions. And he’s done that A LOT. And this is where, if he can improve his final ball, he could turn into a highly lethal player.

Just look how he compares to two other wingers in MLS who were signed from Argnetina for a similar price as Villalba.

Argentine Wingers in MLS

Player Games Played Minutes Goals Assists
Player Games Played Minutes Goals Assists
Gonzalo Veron 13 321 1 1
Lucas Melano 13 725 1 3
Hector Villalba 7 562 4 2

“If you focus on what you left behind you will never see what lies ahead!”

There’s my case. I’m a firm believer that we as fans should be critical to a degree, because that’s what pushes the club to be better. I love this kind of debate and I think everyone should be able to express criticisms freely, whether it’s of Tito, the front office, or anyone else. No one is immune. But I think in this case, our passion and desperation to see these players perform to their maximum levels can leave us jaded and wanting more.

Tito Villalba is the player your opponent on FIFA likes to use because he’s super fast and even though he’s not great, will keep getting behind you and have chances. Well, I’d say any player that is able to do that is a good player, despite the fact that it’s largely concentrated upon their ability to beat their opponent with athleticism instead of skill. Tito might not be the best 5-a-side player in MLS, but thankfully they play on big pitches where he can utilize his talent. Best of all, I think it will be interesting (and hopefully fun) to watch Tito grow as a player this year. He will be offered the playing time under a world class manager that is a recipe for improvement. Here’s hoping we see a good player blossom into a great one.