Hector “Tito” Villalba is a 21-year-old forward who Atlanta United Football Club leaders describe as having uncanny stamina, physicality and breakneck speed, mixed with versatility and experience well beyond his years.
“What we like most about him is his work rate. He moves around so much. He has the capacity to be a high-level player, with high fitness all game long, up and down the line. And I think it fits exactly with what we want of Atlanta United and our players,” said Atlanta United Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra
Mr. Villalba came up in the youth system of Buenos Aires’ San Lorenzo club, which he joined at age 10. (Argentine teams represent neighborhood athletic associations, and the fidelity of fans and members starts at birth and lasts for life.) He has played 100 matches on the first team since his August 2012 debut, including performing in both local and South American championship tournaments.
Still, the San Lorenzo Saints may be better known to outsiders as Pope Francis’s club. The pontiff, who hails from the same neighborhood, pays club dues and is the namesake of its new stadium.
Mr. Villalba is proud to represent his neighborhood, but playing the United States marks a “great step” for his career, he said at a press conference at the Consulate General of Argentina.
“I want to be able to leave my mark and show that I can play with th passion that I played with for my team,” he said through a translator.
At the event, Mr. Bocanegrasaid the Mr. Villalba came on the team’s radar last October. Local soccer enthusiasts have been on “Tito Watch” for the last few months, posting rumors on Twitter about his imminent transfer to the MLS team.
“I guess now ‘Tito Watch’ is over,” Mr. Bocanegra said. “It’s been a long time coming, but he’s here in Atlanta and we’re excited to have him here.”
The technical director said Argentina’s style of play is well suited for MLS, one reason that the country’s players constitute the biggest foreign nationality in the league. Mr. Bocanegra said the team has a worldwide scouting network.
Mr. Villalba was signed as the first of two “Designated Players” allowed to MLS teams. The distinction sets an upper limit for a player’s contribution to the salary cap, regardless of how much he is actually paid. The rule incentivizes clubs to compete for high-paid American and international stars.
Mr. Villalba’s status as a “Young Designated Player” means his pay is counted as even less in the eyes of the league. The club paid a “transfer fee” to acquire rights to Mr. Villalba’s skills from San Lorenzo, the terms of which were not disclosed. His status as an Atlanta United player is contingent on his getting a visa and completing an international transfer certificate to officially move membership from one club to another.
Already, though, he’s received a warm welcome, especially at the consulate that received him “as if I were in Argentina,” he said.
Jose Flores A. Velasco, deputy consul (and former consul general) of Argentina in Atlanta, said the football club’s name is indicative of the city’s ethos as a hub for the civil rights movement: “Too busy to hate.” The fact that the hometown squad is looking overseas for talent says something about the city’s own trajectory, he added.
“It comes to showcase Atlanta as a city looking to the future, betting on young talent from all over the U.S. and the world.”
Mr. Villalba’s story is also an inspiration to young people, both here and back in Argentina, the consul said.
“It’s the kind of message we want kids to grow into: talent and passionate dedication can make a difference. Go after your dreams and the rest will follow,” Mr. Flores said.
Among its seven players announced so far, Atlanta United has recruited two players from the English Premier League, one of whom originally hails from Trinidad and Tobago.
Mr. Villalba will be “on loan” to another team for the rest of the year; it’s been rumored that he will play for the Liga MX team in Tijuana, Mexico, which Mr. Bocanegra would not confirm.
Meanwhile Atlanta United is still looking for its coach.