Real Salt Lake’s Homegrown model has become a pillar of the organization and a clear example for the rest of Major League Soccer. It’s a system in which a young athlete can ascend to the highest stage in American soccer with just one club, entering into battle alongside men who once served as idols, the same men who were once displayed on posters hung on childhood bedroom walls.
Players like Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera are the showpieces of the Real Salt Lake Academy pathway, reaching success at nearly every level on their way to becoming staples within the first team.
But this model is just one of the many found under the umbrella of Real Salt Lake.
In March of 2011 Real Salt Lake put pen to paper on a 19-year-old forward from Tucson, Arizona - Donny Toia - who had spent the last two years in the club’s youth system. The announcement made no waves apart from the acknowledgement of it being the team’s first-ever Homegrown signing.
At the end of the season it seemed as if this venture would come to an end while still in its trial stages as Toia was released, thus ending his time in Claret and Cobalt.
“There was definitely a feeling of failure,” Toia said. “I was young with zero experience and the only playing time I got was in practice or with the reserves. It was an underachievement, being the first to want to prove yourself and it was hard, but I knew there would be other opportunities.”
The next seven years would see Toia play on five teams, across four states, for three leagues and in two countries.
The forward-turned-outsideback logged 7,858 miles across the nation as he clambered his way through nearly every level of the American soccer landscape. The conclusion of this extended “road trip” ended right back at Rio Tinto Stadium when the Homegrown genesis of Real Salt Lake made his long-awaited return home.
“Once you leave a team you assume that chapter is done,” Toia said. “I never thought I would get to return to the place where it all started, the place I ultimately wanted to be.”
Since the last time Toia had stepped foot on the pitch of Real Salt Lake he had played for FC Tucson in the Premier Development League, Phoenix FC in the United Soccer League, as well as Chivas USA, the Montreal Impact and Orlando City in Major League Soccer. The fresh-faced teenager was now a seasoned veteran who had developed into a well-oiled machine at leftback who was ready to take over the reins at the club that helped shape him.
“It’s certainly not easy to move so much and to have to adapt to new systems, but during my first stint with RSL I learned how to grow from listening to those around me and as I went from club to club I continued to gain a wealth of experience from every coach and player I came into contact with, shaping me into the player I am now.”
The unfortunate side of being a defender is that they’re rarely the face of a program, or the most talked about player. In his two years since rejoining the club Toia has largely gone under the radar and yet he has played a crucial role as a staple on the team’s backline.
In his first season back Toia appeared in 24 regular-season matches, helping to establish the third-most stingy defense in the league, allowing just 41 goals in 34 matches. In the postseason he started and played the full 90 minutes in both matches. This past season Toia started in 20 of the team’s 22 matches, recorded the third-most minutes on the team behind Aaron Herrera and Damir Kreilach and became a leader on the pitch.
“It’s weird because I’m only 28, I don’t feel like a veteran, but I’m considered one of the older players and I’ve had to step out of my shell and learn how to lead,” Toia said. “And on the other side I feel like I am a good example to the younger guys, on the first team and even in the Academy, that it is important to keep working and to not get down when one opportunity goes away, because another one will always follow.”
Toia’s career is unlike that of nearly every other Homegrown to ever walk through RSL, his roundabout journey, filled with twists and turns, is largely void of time playing for his hometown club and it took leaving to become the player the club needed.
It’s been nearly a decade since that 19-year-old kid from Arizona made history for Real Salt Lake, both the club and Toia have changed quite a bit and a lot has happened in the years in between. But like the cheesy cliche says “the best journeys take you home,” and for Toia, Real Salt Lake is home.