Sandy • When Donny Toia first arrived on the scene of Major League Soccer, he spent his rookie year on the outside looking in. It was 2011, and the Arizona native had just become the first-ever homegrown signing for Real Salt Lake.
But Toia did not play a single minute his rookie year, and was released from the club before the next season. He meandered through five teams over the next seven years — even spending two years in leagues lower than MLS — and returned to RSL before this season via the Re-Entry Draft as an entirely different player.
He’d made a shift from an attacking player to a left back. He’d started in 100 combined games for the defunct Chivas USA, Montreal Impact and Orlando City SC. So when his journey led him back to where it all started eight years ago, Toia came to RSL ready to prove himself. He’s done exactly that.
Toia has appeared in the starting lineup for RSL for three consecutive games after not playing in five of the first six to start the season. He has started more games in the first two months of the 2019 season (four) than he did all last year with Orlando (three).
A big reason for Toia’s ascension has been his steady improvement since the start of preseason, coach Mike Petke said.
“Donny’s a player that has taken his opportunity and he’s run with it,” Petke said. “He’s made some corrections. His one-on-one defending from when I saw him in preseason to now has gotten much better.”
Petke also said Toia’s positioning on the field has improved. He encourages his outsides backs to go forward and join the attack, and Toia is learning how to better balance that with his defensive responsibilities. Toia scored a goal off a rebound against the L.A. Galaxy precisely because he was in a position to do so.
But Toia’s preferred role is stopping goals from happening. The reason, he said, is because that position on the field has given him the opportunity to stay in the league.
“I don’t know where I’d be at if I was a forward,” Toia said.
Toia’s time as an attacking player in MLS, albeit brief, was instrumental in his transition to a defender. He said with facing attackers looking to score on him, he has somewhat of an upper hand in anticipating what they might do.
“From a forward becoming a defender, you know some forwards’ tendencies and what passes you think they’re going to make and stuff like that just either by watching them or simply doing it yourself before becoming a defender,” Toia said. “It definitely has a helping hand in that aspect.”
Nedum Onuoha has played next to Toia on the left side for the last three games and appreciates the defensive mentality he brings to the field.
“He’s a bit like me,” Onuoha said. “He’s sort of defense first, attack second. I love all that because it means I’m well-protected. … Obviously Aaron Herrera is a very good player and I love playing with him as well. But to have a lefty outside where you can just give it to him on his left foot and he just goes down the wing and I can be on the half with a massive cigar out is perfect for me.”
One casualty of Toia’s new starting role is the ultra-competitive Brooks Lennon, who started the first six games of the season but has since been relegated to a bench role. But Petke said Lennon moving to the bench is not a negative development.
“We have complete faith in Brooks,” Petke said. “Nothing has changed in that aspect. Sometimes it’s good to have a sit back and a reevaluation and other guys step up. It drives the hunger and gives you time to decompress a little bit and to get back in the flow.”
While Toia understands his fighting for a spot on the team could mean someone else loses theirs, he takes a matter-of-fact view of the situation.
“Obviously you got these teammates that become friends and stuff like that, but at the end of the day it’s business,” Toia said. “You’re trying to perform. A lot of contracts and stuff like that are performance-based.”
At just 26 years old, Toia appears to have plenty of room to grow. He feels he’s improved throughout his career and can only go up from where he is now.
“I feel like every year I’m getting better and better and if I stay on that track, then I should be in good shape,” Toia said.
REAL SALT LAKE VS. PORTLAND TIMBERS
At Rio Tinto Stadium
Kickoff » Saturday 7 p.m. MDT
TV » KYMU
Radio » ESPN700
Last meeting » Portland 3, RSL 0 (Oct. 21, 2018 Rio Tinto Stadium)
Records » RSL 3-5-1, Portland 2-5-1
About Portland » Timbers have won two straight games after enduring a five-game losing streak. … Jeremy Ebobisse leads team with four goals. … Concede 2.4 goals per game on the road. … They’re playing first 12 games on the road due to the renovation to team’s home stadium.
About RSL » Keeper Nick Rimando has been upgraded to questionable after missing two straight games. … Erik Holt and Everton Luiz are doubtful, and Tony Beltran is out. … RSL is 2-1-0 at home this season. … They lost both games against Portland last season.