Very quietly, Real Salt Lake’s Donny Toia became one of the most important players of the club’s 2019 campaign.
If you’d paid much attention to his career from the time he left the club, you might have been somewhat surprised by that fact, but similarly not too surprised. He’d seen a successful campaign in 2015 with Montreal Impact, where he locked down a starting left back position.
But he then was dropped in 2016 with the Impact and played roughly half the season, and in 2017, he went off to Orlando City. He played most of his first season there, but 2018 was again the same story: Dropped, and he simply didn’t end up featuring much.
So it was that in 2019, Donny Toia came to Real Salt Lake in the Re-Entry Draft (now a “process” instead of a “draft.”) Expectations were, I think, fairly low for the player. After all, he’d been a Real Salt Lake player before, having signed as a homegrown player with the club in 2011. He played forward at that point, but his minutes were restricted to the MLS Reserve League. He was a fairly massive unknown to the fanbase in Utah, despite having started his career here.
The lack of expectations perhaps served Toia here, because he came in and locked down the starting left back spot in fairly short order. He started behind Aaron Herrera, playing marginally out of position on the left side, with Brooks Lennon taking the right back spot.
Once Aaron Herrera moved over to the right — arguably where he should have been in the first place — Toia came in on the left and didn’t let up. He even scored a goal from the position, and he presented several threatening opportunities that he maybe should have scored.
It was a surprise in some ways that Toia locked down the spot, but alongside Herrera, Nedum Onuoha, and Justen Glad, he was an irrevocable piece of one of the league’s best defensive tandems. It was something he hadn’t achieved in his time in the league, having played for middling defensive teams at best — Montreal Impact in 2015 — and extremely poor ones at worst — Chivas USA in 2014.
2020 will be an interesting year for Toia, as the club has targeted Swedish left back Elliott Käck. While that move has yet to come to fruition, it certainly would appear that the club is prioritizing depth at the left back position, and that does provide an element of risk for Toia. It is, of course, a good move for the club: Toia’s lack of injury disposition was one of the few things keeping RSL’s defensive line from spiraling in crisis. It presented unnecessary risk, and it’s something worth rectifying.
Toia will have a lot to prove in front of him moving forward, especially if a player like Käck signs with the club. He will almost certainly no longer be the only true left back (though one might argue that he’s a converted left back, I’d say his six years in the position says otherwise) at Real Salt Lake. While I’d argue he had a very good year, that will not be enough to guarantee him minutes moving forward. What happens next is up to him — but also up to a fair amount of luck.