FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Even before Juan Toja landed in Massachusetts, New England coach Jay Heaps could barely contain his excitement about the prospect of adding the former MLS All-Star to his squad.
That eagerness to use the former FC Dallas man hasn't diminished despite Toja's inability to work his way to full fitness. Toja has made four substitute appearances and has played just 120 minutes since linking up with his new teammates in September.
While Toja hasn't featured frequently as he adjusts to the rigors of first-team football after a long layoff, he has shown Heaps that he has matured and supplemented his game since his previous spell in the league. Heaps said he has noticed a bit more grit in Toja's game to complement his ample creativity and skill on the ball.
The key for all parties involved at this stage, according to Heaps: trying to find a way to improve Toja's fitness and use his qualities in possession without risking injury in the final two matches of the season.
“Right now, it's just a matter of getting Juan fully fit and ready to move forward,” Heaps told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. “I think we're seeing Juan in spells. That's what we need from him right now only because we don't want to get any injuries from him. But as a player, you see a lot of similarities, but a little bit more bite and a little bit more maturity in his game.”
Job not done yet
Most of Heaps' squad remained in Foxborough this week during the international break and the manager made sure that time didn't go to waste. Heaps put his players through their usual paces ahead of the final two games of the season against Chicago and Montreal.
“We still have to work,” Revolution defender Kevin Alston said. “We can't think that there are just two games left and we can shut it down now. We're still out there practicing hard. Guys are still putting in extra after practice.”
All of that work has a purpose, according to Alston. The work for next year has already started. Now is the time for each player to prove his worth to the side and state his case to return next season. The onus falls on each player and the group as a whole to treat the final few weeks of this season professionally in order to lay the proper groundwork for an improved season next year.
“Although this season might be over, we're still working toward next season,” Alston said. “We're still working on things. Although there is a break in between, it all comes together. I think we're still trying to finish the year strong. This is the time of year when people can get down and emotions come out a little bit more. We need to keep it all together and stay positive.”