“Speed kills. You can’t teach speed. Everything else in the game can be taught, but speed is a gift from God.”
Al Davis said this and consistently built his Oakland Raiders’ teams around it. Dan Quinn has built his Falcons’ defense around it. Tata Martino has built his first Atlanta United squad around it.
When leading scorer Josef Martinez was ruled out with a pulled quadriceps muscle, many expected Martino to turn to veteran Kenwyne Jones as the starting forward. Jones has a mix of size, strength, and skill that few in MLS have. However, Martino doubled down on speed.
Martinez earned the starting forward spot due to his speed and intelligent runs off the ball to create attacking opportunities. Tito Villalba is a little smaller than Martinez, but he is even faster. Both of his goals against Toronto last weekend demonstrated the weapon that he can be for Atlanta United.
Villalba came to the Five Stripes from San Lorenzo, one of the legendary clubs of Argentina. He grew up in Bajo Flores, a rough neighborhood right in front of the club’s stadium and always dreamed of played for them. Soccer became his way out and he made his way up the youth ranks of the club before debuting as an 18-year-old. In his first start with San Lorenzo, Villalba did this:
Scoring goals like that attracts the attention of clubs around the world and Villalba began to be mentioned with potential moves to Europe. His career at San Lorenzo continued, and he further endeared himself to the supporters of San Lorenzo when he was a key part of the club’s Copa Libertadores championship in 2014. It was San Lorenzo’s first time to win the South American club championship in their 100-plus year history. Villalba always tried to set an example for the next generation of kids from Bajo Flores, showing them that hard work and determination can guide them to their own success.
After a difficult final season at San Lorenzo where the club’s new manager did not see Villalba as a fit in their lineup, his contract was purchased by Atlanta United and he became the team’s first Designated Player.
“I’m really happy where I am right now,” Villalba said after training this week. “I’m happy to be in Atlanta. Just look around at this beautiful training center that we have, it just makes all of us really happy.”
With three goals in Atlanta’s last three games, Villalba has emerged as one of the key elements in Martino’s squad. He is the fastest player in Major League Soccer and his speed always gives the team an attacking option. After somewhat of a slow start in the season’s first two games, Villalba scored his first goal for United in the 4-0 win against Chicago and scored twice in Toronto to lead the team to a draw against the defending Eastern Conference champions.
From the early days of training camp, Villalba has formed fast friendships with his fellow South Americans in the squad. The chemistry of La Banda has helped the Five Stripes come together as a team, giving them a foundation to build from. “Yamil (Asad) and I knew each other from Argentina and it worked out that now we are here in Atlanta together,” Villalba said.
La Banda will not be at full strength on Saturday afternoon in Montreal. Josef Martinez is out for a few more weeks with his injury and Yamil Asad will be suspended after his second half red card last week in Toronto. The Impact are a tough team defensively and rode a strong counterattack to the Eastern Conference semifinals last season. They will try their best to slow down the Five Stripes, but you can never count out pure speed.