• Villarreal to showcase its flair _ and ceramics _ in US

    By: TALES AZZONI, AP Sports Writer

    Updated:
    VILLARREAL, Spain (AP) - A short drive through the narrow streets of Villarreal can give you an idea about what matters most in this small city in eastern Spain.

    Only a few buildings stand out - the large ceramics factories that fuel the local economy and the iconic La Cerámica Stadium that is home to Villarreal Club de Fútbol.

    Spain's "Yellow Submarine," as the team is known after the Beatles song for its yellow uniform and low profile, is the pride of this industrial town of 50,000 near Valencia.

    And it's that small family-run team, which often challenges powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona despite having a considerably smaller budget, that is getting a chance to showcase Spanish soccer in the United States.

    Villarreal is preparing to make the trip across the Atlantic next month to face Atlético Madrid in what could be the Spanish league's first regular-season game outside of Spain.

    The game in the Miami area has yet to be confirmed as the league still doesn't have the approval of the Spanish soccer federation and other soccer bodies, but Villarreal is ready to put the club on display.

    It wants to boost its image abroad by showing off its trademark attacking style which has yielded significant success for the club in Spain and Europe over the years, including appearances in the semifinals of the Champions League and the Europa League.

    Villarreal won't be a complete stranger to American fans, though, because it has links with the United States that include a few academy campuses in cities like Dallas and New York. The team's all-time leading goal scorer is Italian-American forward Giuseppe Rossi, and two Americans are currently playing in the club's youth squads - 22-year-old Mukwelle Akale and 17-year-old Jack Imperato.

    "We can never compare ourselves to Real Madrid or Barcelona because of their history, because of what they've won, but we have our own way of doing things, and I feel like it's been working," said the 32-year-old Rossi, who is in Spain trying to make a comeback with Villarreal 12 years after debuting with the team.

    "It's very unique the way this club has been brought up," Rossi told The Associated Press. "I've always loved playing here because of the concepts, of the way that they want to promote their way of playing. I think every young player should be aware and should follow the way Villarreal plays."

    Rossi said Villarreal promotes a "brand of football" that is similar to Barcelona's, focused on ball possession and with an attacking-minded style. The team currently has the Spanish league's second-best attack with 25 goals in 12 matches, behind Barcelona, which has 29 goals in 11 matches - five from Lionel Messi.

    Four of Villarreal's players - Raúl Albiol, Pau Torres, Gerard Moreno and Santi Cazorla - were called up to the Spanish national team on Friday, the most from any club in the league.

    FAMILY-RUN CLUB

    Rossi, who scored a record 82 goals in five seasons with Villarreal, said the club is also unique for its family-oriented structure.

    "It's a different type of club," he said. "I left seven years ago and I'm still seeing the same people, the same kit man, the same people in the restaurant. It just makes you feel at home."

    Rossi compared the club to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA, which has been "able to do big things" despite coming "from nothing" while being based outside a main center.

    Villarreal has finished in the top-six in the Spanish league in nine of the last 13 seasons, with its best finish in second place in 2007-08. It made it to the Champions League semifinals in 2005-06, and to the Europa League semifinals three different times, the last in 2015-16.

    BILLIONAIRE PRESIDENT

    Most of Villarreal's success is linked to president Fernando Roig, a local businessman who recently was in Forbes's list of billionaires. The 72-year-old Roig is a part-owner of Mercadona, Spain's largest supermarket chain, and owns the Pamesa ceramics group that is among the industry leaders. He has been at the club's helm since the 1997-98 season.

    "Over 20 years ago, Mr. Roig believed that this club could one day compete against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, so he not just invested money, but he invested resources," said Brandon Páramo, Villarreal's manager for international business development. "He had a very long-term vision, he had the patience to build and grow the club organically and sustainably."

    The president is adamant about promoting the local ceramics industry, so much so that some of his group's rival companies are involved with the club. The team's stadium, which seats about 23,000, was rebranded two years ago to become a symbol of the region's ceramics and tile industry, with several local companies joining in the project. One side of the stadium is covered with 2,000 square meters (21,528 square feet) of shiny yellow porcelain stoneware produced locally.

    The plaza in front of the stadium was built with ceramic pavement, and the team's modern housing facilities - touted as one of the best in the country - also was constructed with local ceramic products.

    SUCCESSFUL ACADEMY

    Another reason for Villarreal's success is its strong youth academy system.

    "How can a town of 50,000 people compete against Real Madrid or Barcelona?" Páramo said. "It's because we develop players as well as anyone. We are probably a top-three academy in Spain. We have half of our first-team squad coming from the academy."

    Midfielder Rodri, who played for Atlético Madrid and now is with Manchester City, is one of the players who started in Villarreal's academy.

    Imperato, the young American who is in his second season in the academy, gave up offers in the U.S. to try to make it in Europe with Villarreal, hoping to follow in the footsteps of players like Rossi.

    "My long-term goal is to play for the first team of Villarreal," he said. "I think that's every kid's dream here. Most of the players here go through the system, and that's my goal, just to go up the ladder."

    Some famous Villarreal players from the past include Uruguayan striker Diego Forlán, Argentine midfielder Juan Riquelme and Spanish midfielder Marcos Senna.

    Rossi is certainly in that list as well, although he hopes his story with the club is not over just yet. And because of the twists and turns of soccer, now there is a chance the team he adopted in Spain is going back home to play in the United States.

    "It's crazy to think about it. Twelve years ago when I first signed, nobody in the U.S. ever knew who Villarreal was," Rossi said. "It was a team that was growing, a team that was establishing itself in Europe, but you never caught a game in America. Now, fast-forward 12 years and there is a possibility to play this game. It just shows you how great this club is."

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