During New York City Football Club's first year as a franchise in 2015, David Villa drove himself to practice. The former star for Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and others would leave his Manhattan apartment, hop into his Bentley and navigate to NYCFC's training facility in suburban New York. On some days, he'd make a pit stop to pick up teammate Mix Diskerud.
One morning, Villa had grabbed Diskerud and the pair started out to training when Spain's all-time leading scorer realized his car needed gas. The duo pulled into a station, going unrecognized by the attendant who came to pump the petrol.
As premium gas flowed into the tank, Diskerud thought he should chip in for the cost. He was, after all, getting a free ride in a nice car and had been doing so for weeks. While Villa chilled in the driver's seat, Diskerud took a $20 note out of his wallet and offered it to his teammate. The Spaniard took one look at the cash and laughed. While he appreciated the gesture, he didn't need the dough. He was getting paid nearly $6 million to play for Major League Soccer's newest team. He could afford a $50 gas bill.
Diskerud told me that story a couple years ago as a glimpse into his surreal life, but the anecdote always stood out to me more because of Villa's role. He wanted to do things the right way. And so, the face of the fledgling franchise—a squad that also featured legends Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard—didn't mind an extra 15 minutes of commute time. Villa took his captain duties seriously, and he was happy to give the carless, 24-year-old United States international a lift.
That desire has extended beyond playing chauffeur. Instead of treating his time in the U.S. first division as the well-paid transition into retirement some European stars have, he has led by example and succeeded beyond anyone's reasonable expectations.
Occasionally, doing so meant turning down cash from a teammate. But mostly it has meant the 35-year-old forward, who won the 2008 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup, working his ass off on and off the field.
He's been sublime over the past three seasons in MLS, scoring 60 goals in 88 games and becoming "one of the best foreign players who has been playing in this country," according to his head coach, Patrick Vieira. He won the 2016 Most Valuable Player and is in contention again this year.
Last week, Spain head coach Julen Lopetegui recalled Villa to the national team for the first time since he retired from international play in 2014. The forward is part of the 26-man roster for World Cup qualifiers against Italy on Saturday and Liechtenstein on Tuesday.
"We believed he was needed now," Lopetegui said in an announcement of the news last Friday. "We saw him with the right attitude."
There's an outside chance the man they call "The Kid" could find himself at a fourth World Cup finals next summer.
Villa keeps on keeping on. "I don't forget my job," the son of a coal miner said at an appearance at the Adidas store in Manhattan last month. "My job is to do my best every day."
Anyone who says they predicted Villa would find his way back to the national team when he was introduced as NYCFC's first signing in June 2014 is lying. Heck, anyone who says they knew he'd become a major star in MLS isn't telling the truth, either.
There were simply too many variables, both with the situation and the player. MLS history is littered with designated players in their early-to-mid-30s who failed. Villa could have mailed in his effort and followed in the footsteps of players such as Rafa Marquez, Denilson and Claudio Reyna who were worth a fraction of their massive wage bills.
Reyna, the former United States captain who joined NYCFC as sporting director in May 2013, recruited Villa to the club. The Spaniard was the first player Reyna pursued after being attracted by his pedigree and a favorable contract situation that allowed Villa to move on a free transfer from Atletico Madrid.
Reyna thought Villa could be something special, and the forward—who happily went on anonymous training runs in Central Park—enjoyed the idea of building a club from the ground floor.
The project started slowly. For all his on-field effort, Villa is quiet and unassuming off the pitch—not exactly the type of big personality who makes for a natural franchise face.
At first, he spoke little English and was much more comfortable conducting interviews through a translator. His introductory press conference was a stilted and disjointed affair.
NYCFC struggled on the field, going just 10-17-7 and finishing 17th out of 20 teams. Neither Pirlo nor Lampard— NYCFC's two other designated players—made much of an impact. But Villa kept showing up, kept putting in the work and kept scoring. He tallied 18 goals in 30 games, good enough for fourth in the league and three times as many as his next closest teammate, forward Patrick Mullins. He embraced New York, and NYCFC's enthusiastic fanbase embraced the quiet Spaniard.
Last season, Villa was even better. He scored 23 goals in 33 games and won the MLS MVP award while helping NYCFC to its first playoff appearance. It's been more of the same in 2017: 19 goals in 25 games (including this 50-yard stunner) and a leadership role on one of MLS' best teams.
"He's a brilliant player to follow," winger Jack Harrison, the first pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, said. While Harrison spent the first part of last year recovering from an injury, he would watch how Villa used his slight frame to hold off defenders and find pockets of space on the field.
Harrison, who is also 5'9", observed well and has put those lessons to use in compiling eight goals and six assists in 26 appearances this season.
Villa continues to climb the ranks of best DP signings in league history in terms of on-field impact and now sits behind only Robbie Keane, a fact the man who recruited him to New York can appreciate. "He brings that energy and he transmits that to the other players, not only on the field but in training," Reyna said. "It's hard to say how many days he's taken off because he never has."
Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. national team defender and current MLS commentator for Fox Sports, has seen the remarkable success firsthand, both on and off the field.
"David Villa hit the ground running," he said. "And through it all, the good and the bad, he has just kept scoring. He doesn't seem to stop, regardless of age or circumstance.
"He's been an ambassador, too. A lot of international players either don't see it as a responsibility to do that, or they don't see it as something that they want to take on. He's been almost the opposite. That's a wonderful prototype for how a designated player should behave on and off the field."
Lalas continued: "We meet with these guys every so often (before calling their games). Each time that we would meet, you could see Villa's English getting better and better. He was becoming more confident in what he was doing to the point now where he'll start throwing in different words. It's wonderful to see."
Villa's tenure hasn't been perfect. Despite his Lionel Messi-like return of 60 goals and 21 assists in 88 games, NYCFC has failed to win the Supporters' Shield, given to the regular season's best team. And the squad fell short in the 2016 playoffs, suffering a 7-0 aggregate defeat to Toronto FC despite being favored to advance past the Canadian club.
This season has been more of the same. While NYCFC is once again a lock to make the playoffs and Villa looks destined for his second-straight MVP trophy, they won't catch Toronto FC for the Eastern Conference's top spot, and their chances to hoist the MLS Cup appear slim.
Villa will, however, get a chance to impress with Spain. The decision from Lopetegui was, quite frankly, shocking even to the player himself.
"When I got the phone call, my initial reaction was maybe there was some kind of problem, but it turned out to be the complete opposite," he told reporters, per Joaquin Maroto of AS. "I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of love and affection I have received from everyone—especially from the press who have really made a big thing about my return."
Villa, the elder statesman on the roster, joins Pedro Rodriguez, Alvaro Morata, Iago Aspas, Gerard Deulofeu and Lucas Vazquez as the attacking core. His road to the team was improved by the absence of Diego Costa, who hasn't played for Chelsea due to his ridiculous battle with manager Antonio Conte, and the injured Vitolo. With four matches to play, La Roja sit in first place in Group G, tied with Italy on points and up four on goal differential.
While it's unlikely Villa will start the qualifiers, the team's all-time leading scorer will be an option off the bench. The decision could portend to future call-ups as well. It's not as though the forward was an unknown quantity to Lopetegui. There's no reason the coach would pick up the phone if he didn't think there was at least a possibility he could contribute now and, just maybe, at the World Cup in Russia next summer.
"If you're Spain and you're going through a World Cup, you're going to have plenty of talent at your disposal," Lalas said. "But it's not bad to look down the bench and say, 'I'll put David Villa in. Let's see what kind of damage he can do.'"
Whether he plays for Spain in the next week is, in many ways, besides the point. The real story is his return to the national team. By making his way back to La Roja, Villa has showed world-class players can thrive in MLS, that their international careers do not have to stagnate. They can stay sharp and perhaps even improve while taking on more responsibility at the club level.
Villa's done all that and more. He deserves the rewards, even if they won't change him.
"I'll try to be a leader day-to-day," he said during the Adidas store appearance. He looked small, sitting behind a table with his shoulders slightly slumped. But Villa was the center of attention, for the media and the fans. It was exactly where he was meant to be.