A learning experience

Juan Toja grew as both a player and a person during his four-year stint in Europe

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the October 20 home finale against the Chicago Fire

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It would’ve been very easy for Juan Toja to stay with FC Dallas.

The Colombian midfield maestro with the trademark hairstyle became an instant fan favorite upon his arrival in Frisco, garnering club MVP honors in his first season with the club in 2007. League-wide recognition followed as Toja earned All-Star nods in both 2007 and 2008, scoring the MLS side’s second goal in a 2-0 win over Scottish giant Celtic FC in his first appearance.

At just 23 years old, Toja was a budding star with massive potential, one of MLS’ brightest young talents. He’d settled into a comfortable lifestyle in Texas and his steady progression on the field had caught the attention of the Colombia National Team. His English was improving rapidly and he’d formed strong bonds with many of his FC Dallas teammates.

But like it does for so many of the world’s promising young players, the lure of Europe beckoned. Just days after making his second MLS All-Star appearance in 2008, Toja left the comfort of his new life in the U.S. to join Romanian club Steaua Bucuresti in a quest to fulfill his dream.

“Every time you’re leaving a place, a team, a country, your teammates and your people to go to a different experience, a different place, a different language, you’re always excited because it’s a new chance in your life – I’m talking about soccer and I’m talking about your personal life – but also you’re leaving something from part of your life,” said Toja. “You have a lot of different feelings together.”

Toja spent four years in Europe – splitting his time between Steaua Bucuresti and Greek side Aris Thessaloniki – and called the experience “one of the best moments in [his] life.” He played on some of the biggest stages in world soccer, competing in both the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League while facing club powers like Bayern Munich (Germany), Lyon (France) and Atletico Madrid (Spain).

But as with all of life’s journeys, the path through Europe was not without obstacles. At times during his stint with Aris, Toja found himself out of the lineup when his production dipped. Toward the end of his stay in Greece, financial difficulties affected the status of his payments from the club.

Complicated as those situations were at the time, Toja’s now able to reflect on those experiences with an understanding that his struggles were just as influential in his development as his accomplishments.

“When you’re younger, sometimes you don’t understand it that well,” he said. “Sometimes you get angry or you just get crazy. Obviously everybody wants to play – you want to play all the time – but those situations when you have more experience, you start to understand when is the moment to play or not, or why, or what you should do to play or what you shouldn’t.”

Toja returned to MLS in August 2012 four years older and four years wiser. Although he’s generally still the same player he was during his stint with FC Dallas – dynamic, creative and hardworking – subtle changes have been apparent in his first four appearances with the New England Revolution.

“You learn a lot of things in soccer; movements, things that you must do all the time, tactics, being smarter,” said Toja, now 27. “Sometimes when I was younger I was running so much more but not doing some movements that I should. Now that I have more experience, I’m not running as much but I’m doing with little movements the same thing that you do with [bigger movements]. You learn those things with games and games and games and playing with different people in different parts of the world.”

“There’s a maturity in his game,” said Revs head coach Jay Heaps, who played against Toja three times between 2007 and 2008. “Back then he was much more free spirited in how he played. He still has that, but now you can see he likes to get in. In the Houston (Dynamo) game (on Sept. 29) he was laying on the challenges, which is good. Right now it’s just a matter of getting Juan fully fit and ready to move forward.”

Revs fans have yet to see the best of Toja, who’s spent his first month in New England regaining his fitness while settling into a new life, a new team and a new locker room. There have been flashes of brilliance – a defense-splitting pass here, a deft tackle there – but the versatile midfielder has managed only 120 minutes in a handful of substitute appearances since joining the Revolution via the Allocation Process.

There will be two more chances for Toja to impress in 2012 – including the Revolution’s home finale against the Chicago Fire – before entering another long offseason. A couple of strong performances would go a long way in building his individual confidence, but Toja already has his eyes set on a team goal further down the road.

“We are not in the playoffs, something that is getting me crazy,” said Toja. “But this is a new chance for us to work as much as we can this year and come back fresh. (In the offseason) we’ll be with our families, be with our friends, be in our different countries or in our different cultures, have fun and come back with all the energy for next year.”