By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 30, 2012) US Soccer Players -- There’s something of the prodigal son about Juan Toja, the former FC Dallas midfielder signed this week by the New England Revolution. Toja is returning to the League that gave him his jump-started his career and sent him forth into the world of European soccer. Though Toja played in his native Colombia and signed with Argentine power River Plate before migrating north the Major League Soccer and FC Dallas, it was in the environs of the American game that his flair (and to a lesser extent, his hair) became something of a commodity.
He parlayed a season and a half in MLS into a move to Steaua Bucuresti, Romania’s biggest club, becoming one of just a handful of players (both American and foreign) who successfully launched themselves from the US to better paying gigs abroad.
Toja returns after four years, presumably because his European options were limited. MLS provides a nice place to land, in a League that knows him. However, in the period since his departure, MLS has changed by orders of magnitude. Toja himself might or might be the same player he was when his mop of a mullet and his offensive talents made him a sudden star back in 2007. It’s unclear just what the Revolution believe they’re getting with Toja, other than choosing not to pass on the advantage of adding a known quantity who should take less time than usual to adjust to the unique conditions of the League.
“The fact that he’s not only played in this league, but has had success in this league is very important for us.”
That quote from Revs general manager Michael Burns to the club’s official website sums up much of the attraction to Toja in theory. It avoids asking just how much the League and Toja the player in practice have changed.
Similar questions, and a subsequent answer, might already be in evidence if former Chicago Fire All-Star defender Bakary Soumare hadn’t found it so difficult to get on the field for the Philadelphia Union since coming back to MLS earlier this summer. The relative fanfare surrounding Soumare’s return has been muted by his lack of playing time. We haven't had the chance to see how a former top-caliber MLS player might adjust to a League that has likely improved since he left.
Let’s hope that New England didn’t sign Toja expecting him to be as good (relative to the rest of the League) as he was back in his first stint. He very well could be, but he'll need to remind new players and new clubs about his game.
Toja and Soumare’s respective returns to MLS are as close as we’ll come to empirically testing the progress of the League over the period of the absences. There is no clear way to pin down just how much the level of play has improved. When a pair of former All-Stars come back from a stretch abroad, however, their apparent effectiveness might give us a rough idea of how far the League has come.
In the case of Toja the pertinent question is, can he step right back into MLS and be close to the same player he was in 2007 and 2008? Will his attacking talents make him notable in a League most observers would argue has taken large steps since he was sold to Steaua Bucharest in the summer of 2008? After emerging as one of Major League Soccer’s best midfield playmakers during the transition into the Designated Player era, will Toja still stand out in a League with a much richer, much deeper collection of talent?
Let’s consider the variables, of which there are several:
1. Toja is four years older now, though at 27, he’s hardly an aging player. His skills could have degraded in that time, or, just as likely, he could be a more astute player.
2. The New England Revolution, who look likely to keep Toja for at least the rest of 2012 after obtaining him through the allocation process, are struggling to form a coherent identity. That could hamper Toja’s efforts and prevent him from making an obvious impact.
3. We don’t know how Jay Heaps will deploy his new acquisition, and there’s no any guarantee Toja will get enough minutes to merit a full comparison.
While we’re here, trying to draw questionable conclusions based on questionable evidence, it’s worth pondering the easy assumption that Toja and Soumare are back in MLS because their European careers were effectively over. While MLS is a league of last resort for many, it’s possible that for Toja and Soumare positive previous experience here made the switch less one of resignation and more one of positive alternative. Neither is old enough for the decline of their abilities to be a concern. Depending on their salary demands, another stop in Europe was probably on the table. They’re here because MLS was good to them and the interest was mutual.
Do we expect them to return to their previous place of prominence among the better players in the League? If they do manage the feat, maybe that means MLS hasn’t gotten that much better in the years since they left. If they don’t, maybe it means the League is improving at an impressive clip. Or, giving the variables involved, maybe either reality will mean nothing at all. Like so much with MLS, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
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