The clear surprise of Chivas USA's 2014 season was Donny Toia.
The young player, a former Homegrown signing by Real Salt Lake, was cut and made his way back to his native Arizona, playing for the USL PDL's FC Tucson in 2012 and USL PRO's Phoenix FC Wolves in 2013. After trialling with the Goats in the fall of 2013, Toia was among the group of players signed just prior to Chivas USA's ownership changing hands, with the league buying out Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes. Along with Fejiro Okiomah and Andrew Ribeiro, it looked like Toia was going to be squad depth for 2014.
Except, that's not how it happened at all. Sure, he was among the players who were squad depth to start the season. But before long, Toia, who played as a full back in preseason, whereas before he had been an attacker when first landing in MLS, emerged as a series of other players went down with injury on the backline. And with Okiomah and Ribeiro out the door already, Toia was what I called at one point the "lone survivor" who went on to make an actual impact for Chivas USA.
As the season went on, Toia went from emergency option at left back to the starter, beating out experienced incumbent Tony Lochhead, and playing in 27 of the team's final 29 games, across all competitions. All things considered, it was a remarkable transition.
Here were Toia's statistics in 2014:
|Games Played||Games Started||Minutes||Goals||Assists||Shots||SOG||Yellow Cards||Red Cards|
|MLS Regular Season||27||24||2,240||0||0||13||3||5||0|
|U.S. Open Cup||1||1||120||0||0||0||0||0||0|
So why did Toia become the starter at left back? He certainly was more mobile than Lochhead, and stayed healthy. But while Chivas USA coach Wilmer Cabrera gave up the New Zealand international's experience at the position, Toia seemed to play at a similar level, while also having the speed to keep up with quick flank players better than Lochhead.
That's not to say Toia was flawless at the position. There were times where it was pretty clear he was learning the position on the fly, and the couple times Cabrera moved him over to right back were nearly disastrous, as in the Goats' win over the San Jose Earthquakes on the road in July, where Toia couldn't keep up in the same way on the right and resorted to throwing his hands all over the Quakes attackers. He's got a lot of learning to do to really have staying power in MLS as a full back, and with a year of game tape on him, the learning curve is going to be tougher moving forward.
But there was certainly promise in Toia's first year at left back, and he seemed to learn quickly and over the course of the season. For a team like Chivas, that had such a penchant for misidentifying talent over the years, to find a player who shockingly turned out to be better than expected was a surprise indeed. And for it to be one of the least-heralded players was even more remarkable.
And with full back being such a tricky position for nearly every team, in nearly every league, Toia was perhaps a bit fortunate to end up in the position that is always experiencing turnover and exasperated coaches turning to desperate measures season after season. But when given the opportunity, after Lochhead and converted center back Andrew Jean-Baptiste both went down injured, Toia stepped up and didn't look back. And it was gratifying to see, on a team that still struggled so much.
Even with Chivas USA's demise, Toia's career doesn't appear to have hit the same setback as when he was cut from RSL, as the Montreal Impact selected him in the Dispersal Draft. Though Montreal were one of the weakest teams last year, they had a ton of turnover at left back last season, so he may get some opportunities with his new side. At the very least, he could still go to the Impact's new USL PRO team, FC Montreal, to get some minutes while refining his game.
In the end, Toia finished third on the team in league minutes played, which is pretty astonishing considering where he started from. But Toia's season was promising overall, and while he still needs seasoning, he's showing that second acts in soccer are certainly possible, and contrary to popular opinion, Chivas USA can jumpstart careers.
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