PUEBLA, Mexico – Less than two years ago, Benji Joya was balancing school, training and helping his mother at her job as a janitor.
On Friday, the Santos Laguna midfielder's rapid rise to prominence in US Soccer circles was confirmed when he donned the captain’s armband and led his country out to face Cuba in the semifinals of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Mexico, the birthplace of both his parents.
“Being captain out there really meant a lot to me,” said a clearly elated Joya after Friday's 2-0 victory. “All my life, I worked for this. Playing for the US is just a dream come true because I’m representing my country and I think I’m doing a good job.”
Joya sent an exquisite through-pass for Mario Rodriguez to latch onto to open the scoring set the tone for the US’ smooth-sailing victory against the Cubans and he was the focal point of the team going forward after that.
US U-20 head coach Tab Ramos has been impressed and had very little doubt in selecting Joya to take over from the departed Caleb Stanko.
“He has great charisma on the field and off the field and the players like him,” Ramos said in the postgame press conference. “He gets the players to rally round him and he’s a very good player.”
But fast-forward to Sunday’s final against Mexico (7 pm ET, Fox Soccer) and the emotion of likely leading out his team in the Estadio Cuauhtémoc with 40,000 Mexicans booing him and his teammates is not something that phases the 19-year-old.
“I think if we continue to play as we are playing, we should be fine,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter where we play. We’re in Mexico, but I think I’m pretty used to the environment, so it should be a pretty exciting game.”
Joya also wants the US side to make a statement against their archrivals and is confident the players can cause El Tri problems.
“Mexico has a great team and I think it’ll be a good challenge to see what we’re made of,” he said, “and also for them, because we have a pretty good team as well. It’s a good chance to prove who’s dominant.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.