After an injury-plagued preseason kept him buried on the depth chart, Julius James was itching for his first taste of MLS action. When the call finally came in the 18th minute of Saturday's game against L.A. Galaxy, James was more than ready. And just more than a half-hour later, James made a strong case that he could be a hard man to remove from Toronto FC's lineup.
The first-year defender's first professional goal turned out to be the winner in TFC's 2-0 win against Los Angeles. James soared above the scrum in front of the net to find Rohan Ricketts' free kick and head it into the right corner of the Galaxy net.
"It was unreal," James said. "Nothing you can experience will give you that kind of feeling. I've been waiting for a while, since preseason, to play and I got the chance today and with the help of my teammates and God, things worked out."
It seemed as if James' teammates were even happier than he was. James immediately rushed to the bench after scoring, where he was swarmed by the entire TFC roster in a group hug.
"Julius is a great guy," said midfielder Maurice Edu. "He trains hard every day. Everyone wants to play but he has some talented guys in front of him that are playing right now. He's been patient, training hard and waiting for his opportunity."
Edu, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft, made an immediate impact in Toronto's lineup last season, but things have been different for James, TFC's first-round selection (No. 9 overall) in the 2008 draft. Injuries to his shoulder and knee sidelined James for parts of the preseason and the first few regular season contests, and by the time he was fit, he found himself behind Tyrone Marshall, Marco Velez and Olivier Tebily at central defender.
James didn't lose hope, however, and kept putting in the work at training and in reserve games.
"The older guys keep talking to me and tell me [about] patience, you know?" James said. "They keep saying guys will get injured. My parents just keep supporting me, my friends and family. I was frustrated, but every soccer player has to sit on the bench at some point in time."
The chance finally came for James just 18 minutes into Saturday's game. Tebily was starting in place of the injured Marshall, but Tebily himself had to leave the match after suffering a calf injury in a collision with a Galaxy player. James was called into action and made the most of his opportunity.
It was something that Toronto head coach John Carver has preached to his reserves all season long --- be ready when your time comes. This game proved to be that time, with TFC missing six regulars due to injuries, international duty and suspension. The infusion of fresh blood into the lineup seemed to invigorate the Reds, who looked very fit for a club playing its fifth match in 15 days.
"That's why today's performance has given me more pleasure than any other performance of the season," Carver said. "When you've got six players out of the team ... then it's a bit of concern, but I have faith in the guys who have come in. I said to them in the dressing room that you've been waiting for a chance, you've been patient and they've taken it."
Los Angeles was also fielding a less-than-complete roster, with David Beckham and Ante Jazic missing the match due to international duty. Landon Donovan was in the lineup, but never came into the match as the MLS goals leader is still recovering from a groin injury.
The Galaxy were also finishing a tough stretch of the schedule, as the Toronto match was their sixth game in 22 days. L.A. seemed to fade in the second half, while the Reds just got stronger as the match went on. The Reds outshot L.A. 9-2 in the half, including a 5-1 edge in shots on goal.
Carver said that he told his team to try more diagonal passes to strikers Jarrod Smith and Jeff Cunningham, and the strategy paid off as the forwards combined for five shots and several chances. Cunningham broke through in the 65th minute with his second goal of the season and 98th of his MLS career.
Cunningham was another player who was fighting for playing time. The success of Danny Dichio and Amado Guevara up front has limited Cunningham to just 100 minutes played over TFC's last seven games.
"I was very relieved [to score the goal]," Cunningham said. "Two and a half months of not playing, you know that goal meant a lot. The win proves to the coach that he has depth and has confidence in others stepping in able to get the job done -- it's a good feeling for other guys to come in and make a difference."
A game like this was pleasing to Cunningham and Edu, both of whom were frustrated last season when the first-year Reds struggled to fill a lineup due to player absences.
"Last year I think that's something we were lacking," Edu said. "When guys were injured or at international duty, our team was a little bit thin and we might not have gotten the result that we got today."
The difference can be seen in the league standings. The win against L.A. improved Toronto to fourth overall in MLS. The Reds are now 4-0-2 at BMO Field and have a league-best 14 home points.
Carver said his team hasn't gotten too high on themselves, however, and this humility was apparent in the attitude of James. Even after his breakout debut, the defender said he has a long way to go before he becomes a fixture in the starting XI.
"It's a long season and in order to remain on the starting team you have to be consistent," James said. "I'm not too confident I earned anything today because it was my first game and there's a lot of experience on the team. So I'll have to continue to work hard in practice ... and see where the ball goes."
Mark Polishuk is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.