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Proving crucial in playoff run, Villalba seizing his chance with Atlanta United

Time after time, he seems to step up in the most crucial moments.

Tito Villalba silenced Orlando City Stadium on July 21 when, in the 86th minute of a 0-0 game, he controlled a throw-in on the left wing, took one touch into a pocket of space and blasted a 30-yard game-winning strike past helpless goalkeeper Joe Bendik.

The following weekend, he sent the home crowd into a frenzy with a stoppage time-equalizer, erupting Bobby Dodd Stadium one last time with nearly the last kick in Atlanta United’s first stadium. When Almirón went down and the team needed a goal in September's matchup with Montreal with crucial playoff implications, Villalba launched an unstoppable missile for the game-winner.

The 23-year-old has started every one of Atlanta’s 32 games so far in his first season in Major League Soccer. He’s scored 13 goals ­– three of which were voted MLS Goal of the Week – and contributed ten assists shifting from center forward to right wing over the course of Atlanta’s inaugural season. The newcomer is enjoying his experience in Atlanta yet remains focused on what is to come.

“Wonderful, that’s the word I use,” Villalba said. “Remembering that this (club) just recently started and that we have many aspirations, both myself and as a group, and we hope at the end of the year to reach those aspirations.”

The Buenos Aires, Argentina native joined Atlanta as the club’s first Designated Player in July 2016. He arrived from San Lorenzo in Argentina where he made 89 first division appearances between 2012 and 2016 after coming up through the club’s youth ranks beginning at age 10. He was part of a San Lorenzo squad that also featured Nacho Piatti that won the 2014 Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club tournament.

Villalba grew up in Villa 1-11-14, an impoverished neighborhood in Buenos Aires in front of San Lorenzo’s Estadio Pedro Bidegain. He grew up going to games with friends, he said, and later when he joined the youth teams he would take advantage of his club ID to go every weekend. His career started with a tryout when he was 10 years old.

“I went to a tryout in June with 500 boys,” Villalba said. “We trained over the course of the week and on Friday they picked a team of 11. That team played against a team of starters at that division, and that’s where my journey started.”

Fast forward to Atlanta in 2017, and Villalba realizes just how far he’s come.

“I give everything every day, and sometimes when I go home I reflect on where I’m living today and how my strengths got me here, and it makes me think of my friends and where they’re living. Most of them are in Villa 1-11-14 and talking to them every day is tough because it’s hard living in Argentina at the moment.”

He’s now a starter and key contributor for an Atlanta side that features a group of fellow South Americans, which Villalba believes benefits his game and allows him to use his speed to counter on teams alongside Miguel Almirón and Josef Martinez. All under the direction of head coach Tata Martino, who Villalba describes as patient and someone who makes you see the game a different way.

“I’m learning things because Tata is a coach who’s always on top of you,” Villalba said. “And if he’s not then someone on the coaching staff is, pointing things out, things that add up, and I’m really happy for that.”

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