New York City FC made history during the 2016 season.
In just their second year as a franchise, the club hosted its first-ever home MLS playoff game when they took on Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium.
After finishing their inaugural season near the bottom of the league standings in 2015, the team picked themselves off the mat and morphed into one of the best teams in the league, finishing second in the Eastern Conference to the rival New York Red Bulls.
That rise to the top has been fueled by a number of factors. Jack Harrison, Frank Lampard, and Thomas McNamara, have formed a formidable cornerstone for the squad, which plays its home games in the Bronx, making the team the only profressional soccer club in the five boroughs. They’ve also had the benefit of strong coaching from Patrick Vieira, who has started to form a team around all the talent he’s accumulated in NYC.
But nothing has had a bigger impact than the performance of captain David Villa.
The international soccer star has helped turn NYCFC into a winner, providing leadership and consistent play through the entire season while finishing second in the MLS in scoring.
If you recognize his name, that’s probably because Villa starred for Spain during championships at UEFA Euro 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He is the the all-time leader in goals for his home country—he can go virtually incognito in New York, but gets mobbed in Madrid—and he’s won multiple league titles during his career in Europe. So yes: he understands what it takes to win when the pressure is at its highest. And, perhaps more importantly, he expects the same from his team.
“I think we’ve been strong from the first day,” Villa tells Men’s Fitness. “The team little by little, day by day, grew stronger at the training ground and in the games all season long. We’ve been successful because of that, by working hard and strong every day.”
Villa led his team into the historic first home playoff game for the franchise after losing 2-0 against Toronto FC in the first leg on the road. The team came into the game in a must-win situation at home, needing at least a two-goal victory to advance to the next round of the postseason. Unfortunately, NYCFC couldn’t get it going and ended up falling 5-0 to Toronto—but the foundation has been laid for future success.
Villa felt confident heading into the historic playoff game for NYCFC, but another thing that helped out was the strong support from the fanbase. The club is backed by one of the best home-field advantages in all of sports—a raucous crowd that averages 27,000 supporters who drum, yell, cheer, and chant for 90 straight minutes from the seats at Yankee Stadium.
“It’s amazing the atmosphere that the supporters give us,” Villa says.
Villa had an incredible season for NYCFC and while the team ended up losing in the playoffs, the Spanish star capped things off by taking home the MLS Most Valuable Player award for the 2016 season.
“I’m very proud to represent NYCFC and to receive this award,” Villa said at the news conference announcing the award. “It’s a big day for me because this is one of the things I said I wanted to do when I came here two years ago.
Villa spoke with Men’s Fitness about leading NYCFC to the playoffs for the first time and how his training has fueled his play this season.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.)
MEN’S FITNESS: What does it feel like preparing for the first-ever playoff game for NYCFC?
DAVID VILLA: Exciting, but it’s the same as other weeks. Train strong. Focus on our abilities and the abilities of the other team. We work hard to stay strong in training so we can be ready for the game against Toronto on Sunday. We’re feeling confident.
What are your expectations for the team after making its first postseason in the MLS?
We will give 100% effort in every game we play. Of course, we are fighting against very good teams, but we hope to have a very good playoff campaign this year.
You had one of your most successful professional seasons this year. Did you do anything different in your training than in the past to help fuel that success?
Not really. Working strong every day is mandatory for me when I train, from the time I started to be a soccer player. This year, I made the same commitment as other years and it translated to success on the field.
How did your training and preparation help you and the team this season?
I believe in the physical work that happens in the gym—what starts there turns into results on the field. This year the physical work has been great for myself and the team and I believe in it. The training staff gives us a great exercise plan for the gym and at home that helps us stay in shape through the season and energetic into the playoffs.
What are some of your favorite moments from this season so far?
I hope some of those moments are coming up in the next games we play. When we win at home, it’s great, we have such an amazing atmosphere and such loud fans. But the best moment? I hope it’s still ahead for us.
What games stand out to you as your best performances as a team?
We’ve had a lot of great games this season—of course we have some better games than others. In the last month, the games at home have been very good for the team, the support from the crowd has been amazing, especially the games against Columbus and Chicago.