BRADENTON, Fla. – When Benji Joya looks back at the 2003 San Jose Earthquakes, he can still remember the players on his hometown team that inspired him as a 9-year-old: Landon Donovan, Pat Onstad and Troy Dayak, among others.
But a player to idolize, to emulate? Joya goes in a less traditional direction.
“Arturo [Alvarez] at the time was my idol, because he was the only – that I knew – Hispanic on the team,” Joya told MLSsoccer.com last week, recalling the Houston-born Salvadoran international who spent five seasons in San Jose. “He gave me his shoes, so that was really nice. … That was the first team I wanted to play on. They really made me want to play professionally.”
More than 10 years later, Joya is in his first MLS preseason after joining the Chicago Fire on a year-long loan arranged by MLS, and he has set up one goal and scored another in two halves of preseason play against D.C. United so far.
His choice of childhood idol was prescient in some ways, as Joya has become an attacking midfielder who turned pro at 18, just like Alvarez. But as he has gotten older, Joya’s inspirations have changed and have mirrored his journey.
Once a shirtless drummer in San Jose’s Casbah supporters’ group, Joya joined Mexican club Santos Laguna in 2011 and spent several years being mentored by US national team forward Herculez Gomez. In the present day, coming back to the United States has given him a chance to face his latest soccer idol, Seattle Sounders star Clint Dempsey, in league play this year.
“When I was in the US national team program, I got No. 8, and I was really happy because he’s No. 8,” Joya said. “To me, he’s my idol. … He’s a player who I want to come off the bench for, if not start over him – I’ve got to look out for me, too! To me, he’s an amazing midfielder, an amazing 8, and I look up to him a lot. I know I’m going to follow his steps.”
While Joya hopes to follow in Dempsey’s footsteps at the national-team level, he is coming back to MLS because of an early lesson in complacency learned with his club team. After making his Liga MX debut for Santos Laguna on his 19th birthday, Joya seemed to be a rising star, but was never able to maintain the consistency needed to stay in the lineup.
“Being honest to myself, I can say I kind of settled and thought, ‘Well, I debuted already, and I’m going to continue playing,’ says Joya. “But a new coach came in, Pedro Caixinha, and he was very tough. For a young player like me, it was like starting all over, and it’s really cost me a lot.”
Comfortable with his club in Torreón, Joya got a predictably more hostile reception in his parents’ birth country when competing for the United States in the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 championship, held in Puebla, Mexico. Part of a sizable generation of Hispanic American youngsters comfortable in the duality of their heritage and culture, Joya shrugged it off.
“Obviously we were in Mexico, so everybody was against us,” Joya said. “Us being Latinos, we could hear them saying, ‘Why the US?’ but we all have a lot of love for our country. Even though our families are Mexicans, we have a lot of love for the country, and I feel we did a good job and we played with our hearts. We really played for the US national flag.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway from Joya's experience with the US Under-20 national team is the advice of head coach Tab Ramos, who encouraged Joya to always be willing to take risks.
“I’m not afraid to lose the ball, and I thank Tab Ramos for that. He always told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to lose the ball, man,’” Joya said. “I got that through my head, and ever since then, I get the ball with confidence all the time. … Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does, but you always have to try new things. If you don’t try, if you don’t risk, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
There are no guarantees for playing time in Chicago’s crowded midfield, but if Joya’s latest risk pays off, 9-year-olds in Chicago will have a new choice for their own soccer idol.