New York City FC is about to make history.
In just their second season as a franchise, the club will host its first-ever home MLS playoff game on Sunday when they take 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. A 2016 MLS MVP finalist, he will now lead NYCFC into the biggest game the team has had in the short history of the franchise.
After losing 2-0 against Toronto FC in the first leg on the road, the team is in a must-win situation at home, needing at least a two-goal victory to advance to the next round of the postseason.
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 feels his team is confident heading into the historic playoff game for NYCFC, but another thing that helps out is the strong support from the fanbase. The club will be backed on Sunday 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.
That support will be even more important on Sunday, as the club tries to keep its eight-game home unbeaten streak—and its championship hopes—alive for another week.
Villa spoke with Men’s Fitness briefly 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.