Coming into the season, Chivas USA signed a whole heap of players, like they do pretty much every year, and it's always a process waiting to see which guys will make their way into the lineup, and which will leave the club without making much of an impression.
Former Real Salt Lake Homegrown signing Donny Toia was among the group of players signed in the pre-Wilmer Cabrera era in the offseason, after trialing with CUSA in last year's postseason friendly against FC Tucson. After he had been cut loose by RSL, the Arizona native bounced around local clubs, and when given a chance by the Goats to move into a more defensive role, the now 22-year-old took it.
Looking back, less than a year on, and Toia is one of only five pre-Cabrera offseason acquisitions to stick with the team, although the other four were more established in their careers than him (Mauro Rosales and Andrew Jean-Baptiste played regularly in MLS, while Tony Lochhead was a recent New Zealand international and had been a fixture in the A-League).
In fact, Cabrera has been pretty ruthless in getting rid of players, as the cautionary tale of Fejiro Okiomah, a player who was signed and cut within a matter of weeks in the offseason, would indicate. Toia and Okiomah were part of the FC Tucson friendly/trial last year, as was Andrew Ribeiro, another defender who survived into the season but never made an appearance before being cut. Adolfo Bautista, Luke Moore, Dani Fragoso, Carlo Chueca, Bryan de la Fuente, Tim Melia, and Matthew Fondy have all been shown the door.
So Toia survived to this point. That's nice. But what's surprising is how well he's played this season.
The big question entering the season was about Chivas USA's defense, and more specifically, their full backs. Lochhead was a full back, so at least the team added one, but they played Eric Avila as a converted right back early in the season. Avila actually played pretty well, but depth problems on the other side gave Toia his opening, as first Lochhead and then Jean-Baptiste went down with injuries, and Toia was pretty much the last man standing.
After making two substitute appearances in March and April, Toia has started the last 13 straight league games for the Goats. Even after Lochhead got healthy, Toia remained in the lineup, and then Cabrera showed how much belief he had in the youngster by moving him over to right back and playing Avila back in the midfield.
Fullback is a weird position, both in MLS and in soccer more generally. It's arguably the lowest priority position, and it leads to lots of converted midfielders and converted center backs slotting in and learning the position as they go. That flexibility gave a player like Toia a window to make an impression, and he hasn't backed down. Even when he's struggled, as he did at times in Chivas' recent win over San Jose, he still played well enough to help preserve a shutout.
Now, the next challenge in his season comes.
Akira Kaji was signed just before the summer transfer window opened, and the Japanese veteran made his first MLS start last week against Colorado. Though it looks like he may get a solid shot of playing time, especially since he's got plenty of experience playing right back, Toia will probably give him and Lochhead a run for their money in getting minutes over the course of the season. Still, he probably won't be an automatic start, and that competition should help all three players stay motivated (hopefully).
The second challenge for Toia is the growing volume of game tape he's amassing. I wouldn't say the secret to his good play has been the fact that opponents didn't know what to expect, but that element of surprise probably helped at least a little bit. But now that he's seeing consistent minutes, opposing coaches will notice patterns, weaknesses that they can exploit, and he will likely see games in which the other team is looking to attack on his side. It's up to him, and CUSA's staff, to keep the good momentum going.
There are likely to be good games and bad games ahead for Toia. He may be a one-year wonder or a player who is truly embarking on a solid MLS career -- only time will tell. But as one of a select few to survive the cull (so far) of this 2014 season, what's impressive is that he's battled to stay on the team, but also become a starter, something that was surely not projected at the beginning of the season.
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