GUADALAJARA, Mexico – US Under-20 international Benji Joya was naturally nervous when he was summoned off the bench by coach Benjamín Galindo last Saturday.
It was Joya’s official debut with Mexican champions Santos Laguna on just his 19th birthday, but there was a voice of calm and confidence that helped Joya through what was undoubtedly one of the biggest moments of his young life.
That voice belonged to Herculez Gomez, the US international striker who has trudged down a career path from MLS to Mexico and become a sort of mentor to Joya, a California native and promising star in the US youth ranks.
Gomez helped Joya relax and told him to be confident, to enjoy the moment and not to be afraid of taking players on.
“From then on,” Joya said, “I just started playing.”
The debut went well for Joya (right), who celebrated his birthday in style by nearly breaking a scoreless deadlock against Jaguares after he came on in the 54th minute.
But it was likely only possible with the supportive words from Gomez, who shares a similar path to Mexico and has now become something of a sounding board for his new teammate. Both are sons of migrants who left western Mexico for California, both are from working-class families and both headed south as teenagers in search of making it as a pro.
“He’s the person I go to for advice and he’s always been straight up with me,” Joya said of Gomez. “If I had a bad practice, he’d tell me, ‘You’ve got to do this, put more effort in.’
“Herculez has actually played a big role in me debuting because since day one that I got here, he’s been supporting me,” Joya added.
But it wasn’t his background that first made Gomez take note of Joya, who moved to Torreón in June 2011 and eventually signed with the club in December.
“This is a kid who last year trained with us for a week when we needed bodies,” Gomez said. “I remember asking guys, ‘Who is this kid?’”
The impact Joya had that week in training was an early sign that he seems to have that knack of making the most of any opportunity he gets. That was also on display when he started his first game for Santos against the Chicago Fire on Sept. 8, impressing over 91 minutes and opening the scoring in the 24th minute of the international friendly.
“It was the first opportunity I got from [Galindo] and I just felt like I wanted to show them what I have and that I deserve to be on the first team, so I just played with all my heart,” Joya said. “And thankfully the game went alright.”
Joya has been part of the gameday roster in all of Santos’ three games since then and revealed that Galindo has been telling him that there should be no turning back from here.
“He told me to keep doing my best and that there is some reason that I’m here,” Joya said. “Those words really motivated me to not look back. I’ve debuted and that’s the past. I’ve got to think ahead to tomorrow’s practice and so on.”
Aside from working his way up the ladder with his club, Joya is enjoying his role as a regular for Tab Ramos’ Under-20 national team. He appeared in the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland in July and is set to be back in Europe next week when the U-20s travel to Marbella, Spain, for a training camp and friendlies against U-20 sides from Canada, Scotland and Azerbaijan.
It’s all a far cry from Joya’s days struggling through high school in San Jose, Calif. From his freshman year on, Joya survived on four hours sleep a night, balancing school with soccer training and a job as a janitor helping his mother clean office buildings.
“I would go to work, my mom would take me to soccer practice, then I’d go back to work,” reminisced Joya. “I’d get home pretty late at like two in the morning. Sometimes I’d do my homework and sometimes I wouldn’t, to be honest, because I’d go back to school at seven in the morning, so I’d wake up at six.
“It was all sacrifice because I love soccer,” he added. “I made time for it but I also love my family, so I would work so we could have a better life.”
It’s the kind of story that obviously strikes a chord with Gomez, whose struggles to make it in a culture of pay-to-play teams and expensive soccer camps led him first to Mexico and then to indoor soccer in Southern California, before eventually getting his break in MLS.
“What I love most about this kid is that he is the prototypical Chicano player,” Gomez said. “He’s got a very American mentality that says, ‘I’ve got to work and put my head down, I want to do this for my family.’ I can relate to that, and I think if he keeps that same mental approach, he’s going to be fine.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.