This week was an eventful one for Donny Toia.
The 26-year-old defender started the week not knowing what his future held as a professional soccer player after his contract was declined by Orlando City SC, his sixth club in eight professional seasons. He was awaiting his fate in Friday’s Re-Entry Draft to determine where the next stop would be, but also awaiting the arrival of his first child with his wife Courtney.
On Wednesday, he became a father with the birth of his daughter, Payton Kay Toia, and couldn’t help but brag about his new arrival.
“She’s adorable,” he beamed. “Perfect in every way possible.”
By Friday afternoon, with the new duties of changing diapers, swaddling and everything that comes in the first days of parenthood, he learned that he would be returning to the club where he started his MLS career in 2011 when Real Salt Lake selected him in the Re-Entry Draft.
All-in-all, a week that started filled with anxiety ended in jubilation.
“I was shocked. The last few days have been a little stressful just figuring out what’s going on and what’s going to happen with my situation,” Toia said. “Then halfway through the phone call I was extremely happy.”
Toia is far from the same player he was in his first stint with RSL.
Originally signed in 2011 as the club’s first Homegrown player from the vaunted RSL Academy in Arizona, the then-18-year-old couldn’t find the field on a Real Salt Lake team loaded with talent at every position. After his release in February of 2012, he sought playing team and returned to Arizona to play for FC Tucson in the PDL, the Phoenix FC in USL Pro.
For a wide-eyed and confident player, the move down the US Soccer pyramid was a humbling experience, but one Toia embraced as he looked to keep his dreams alive.
“It’s never in anyone’s plans to get released after your first season. You can’t let that stop you. You have to keep working hard,” Toia said. “It was a huge learning experience for me”
His work and unrelenting attitude were noticed by the right people and in 2014 he returned to MLS with Chivas USA. After one tumultuous season that saw Chivas disbanded, he went to the Montreal Impact in the Dispersal Draft. In his two seasons in Quebec, he helped the Impact reach the CONCACAF Champions League final while starting in 44 matches for the club in two playoff seasons. Following the 2016 season, though, he was picked up by Orlando City SC, making yet another stop in his soccer journey. He was a full-time starter in 2017, but saw just four appearances in 2018, taking in more valuable lessons.
For all of his stops along the way before returning to Utah, Toia has made an effort to learn new things and add to his developing game. One of the challenges along the way has been a revolving door of coaches that have praised and critiqued his play. In eight professional seasons, he has played under Jason Kreis, Rick Schantz, Jon Pearlman, David Robertson, Wilmer Cabrera, Frank Klopas, Mauro Biello, Kreis again, Bobby Murphy and James O’Connor.
While that has created some uncertainty at some level, Toia embraced the opportunities to earn playing time and learn from the varying voices that coached him.
“It’s helped me a lot. Every coach has their own tactics and their own mindset,” he said. “They’re the boss. You’ve just got to go to training, work hard and prove yourself every day.”
Now with 100 MLS starts to his credit, he returns to Real Salt Lake under Head Coach Mike Petke with an opportunity to earn playing time as a versatile outside back that can play on either side of the defense.
With a youthful core and competition throughout the field, he will be looked to as a veteran leader on the back line, even at just 26 years old. It doesn’t hurt that his hard-nosed work ethic fits right into Petke’s coaching mentality.
“I’m extremely excited to come back to Salt Lake. I can’t be more thankful for the opportunity,” Toia said. “Watching them play, they’re a young group but they play really well. Petke is doing a great job with them. He wants them to work hard and it shows.”
While he returns to a familiar stadium with some familiar faces in the locker room, much has changed about RSL since his last stint with the club. As much or more has changed for Toia as well.
Although he made several stops along the path back to Utah, nothing has changed about his passion for the Real Salt Lake organization and the fans who welcomed the club’s first Homegrown signing back in 2011.
“There are things you don’t forget. They were the team that brought me into this league and helped me achieve the goal I wanted to achieve. As soon as I put that jersey on, I’m playing for them, for honor and trying to leave everything on the field for them,” Toia said. “I’m very blessed and thankful to be coming back to Salt Lake and I’ll be wearing that crest with passion.”