- Associated Press - Friday, June 23, 2017

David Villa is one of those rare players where the hype has matched the performance.

Showered with attention and heralded as a game-changer upon joining NYCFC more than two seasons ago, the Spanish World Cup winner vowed that he’d get the team on the right track and serve as a worthy ambassador for Major League Soccer.

His play since then has proven his dedication to those goals.

“I think the league that I joined two and a half years ago is growing a lot, and I’m so happy to be a part of that,” he said. “But we still need to work hard in the future.”

Spain’s all-time leading scorer is Major League Soccer’s reigning Most Valuable Player after scoring 23 goals last season, narrowly edged by one goal for the Golden Boot award by Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips.

In NYCFC’s first two seasons, Villa scored 41 goals in just 63 games. He’s off to a good start against this season, with 10 goals and six assists in 15 matches. He’s on a career pace for assists.

“I think every good team, you always have a leader on the field who takes responsibility and drives the team. And David’s that one for us,” NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira said. “When David is playing well, the team is playing well. When David is having a good day, the team has a good time and plays well. He’s been fantastic so far. He’s working hard for the team and the team is working hard for him, as well.”

But it’s more than just his play. The 35-year-old Villa has embraced both MLS and his adopted city. One of the first things he did after joining the team was visit the Empire State Building with his family, posting photos on social media. He’s known to sample New York’s eclectic eateries. And he’s worked hard to learn English, going mostly without a translator for an interview this week with The Associated Press.

This weekend, Villa’s aim is to reverse NYCFC’s recent fortunes in the Hudson River Derby with the rival New York Red Bulls.

The Red Bulls have dominated since the rivalry was created in 2015, NYCFC’s first season in the league, with six wins in seven meetings. The Red Bulls recently knocked off NYCFC 1-0 in a U.S. Open Cup fourth-round match.

Villa is staying focused despite the emotions of the rivalry.

“It’s three points. Just the same as the last game and the same as the next game,” he said. “Of course for the city and for the fans, it’s important, and we need to fight for them, too.”

Known as “El Guaje” (The Kid) because he played as a youth on teams with older players, Villa helped Spain win the 2008 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup. He holds Spain’s record with 56 international goals.

NYCFC’s first signing and the team’s Designated Player, Villa came to MLS on a free transfer from Spanish league champion Atletico Madrid, where he scored 15 goals in 47 games in all competitions in 2014. Villa previously played for Sporting Gijon (2001-03), Zaragoza (2003-05), Valencia (2005-10) and Barcelona (2010-13). He helped Barcelona win the 2011 Champions League title.

While there were the usual grumblings about MLS being a “retirement league” for older European players when Villa arrived in New York, his play and impact have dispelled that notion.

Villa reached a milestone 50th goal (and 51st, too) in a rain-soaked 2-1 victory last weekend over the Seattle Sounders. It was his 13th career multi-goal game. He was named the league’s Player of the Week and the victory moved NYCFC into third place in the league’s Eastern Conference.

He scored his 50th in just 79 MLS matches, fifth-fastest in league history.

“It was really important for me. It’s a very good number of goals. These goals give valuable position to NYCFC and these goals give good memories to the fans,” he said. “I’m so happy to do that.”

Vieira said Villa has that elusive quality that makes a player - from any sport - special: He makes those around him better. But probably the best compliment came from Wright-Phillips, who earlier this week dismissed comparisons to Villa as a rivalry storyline. Wright-Phillips won the league’s Golden Boot with 24 goals.

“He’s done things in the game of football across the world that I would never do and I’m not capable of,” Wright-Phillips said. “Obviously, while we’re in the same league people are going to try and compare. But if you just think about it a little you know there’s probably no comparison.”

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