They were a long way from home when they first spotted their newest teammate and though none of them had ever seen him before, it didn't take long to figure out which of the players in the Atletico
Paranaense dining room they'd soon be meeting.
A distinctive mullet that soon would light up MLS matches identified Juan Carlos Toja to FC Dallas players during their 2007 preseason trip to Brazil, yet soon enough they realized in this case, whatever impressions that image might suggest didn't fit the man.
"A lot of players in South America wear their hair that way," says FC Dallas coach Steve Morrow, who himself keeps very short what little he has left, of his Colombian midfielder. "You'd think he'd be like a rock star, but he's not that way at all, just the opposite in fact."
Toja, in fact, is perplexed and somewhat embarrassed by all the attention lavished on his mane, which just months after his first MLS match prompted club management to stage "Juan Toja Wig Night," an honor previously bestowed upon a fellow countryman, former superstar Carlos Valderrama. Aside from their distinctive 'dos and shared heritage, they're as different as attacking midfielders can be.
"I like to play and score, and I like to fight, win tackles. I like to do both," says Toja, who turns 23 in May and came to MLS after a difficult loan spell with Argentine power River Plate. "I'm trying always to do the best work, day by day, practice, practice, practice, game by game, play 100 percent. Sometimes you can play good with the ball, sometimes it's a happier day, but if you run and you fight, you can do something."
FAMILY VALUES. The style Toja brings to MLS has nothing to do with stardom or fame or fanciness, though he can ping a great pass, drill an accurate shot or slip a tough tackle. His drive and determination are fueled by admiration for his mother, Martha, who raised two sons on her own since they were young, and memories of brother Sebastian, the victim of a pool accident that left him in a vegetative state for years before he died.
"That was terrible for me, and it was terrible for my mom," remembers Toja, who was 5 when his brother fell into a pool during a party and lay at the bottom for several minutes before being rushed to the hospital.
Juan's father left the family at about the same time, leaving Juan and Martha to care for Sebastian. The vigil lasted nearly nine years, during which time Martha supported her sons by selling cars. Playing professional soccer, which he's been doing since joining Santa Fe in his native Bogota when he was 16, enables Juan to repay her.
"For her, it was so difficult," says Toja. "My mom is incredible, really incredible, because she work a lot to try to make me feel happy, to make money, to take care of problems, to look after me and my brother, she was just amazing.
"I went to school, I had a normal education, I was so happy. Growing up I was always with my mom. I have a good relation with my father, of course, but my mom is my mom. And now I can give back to my mom. Now she doesn't work."
Work is the essence of Toja's game. His toughness is leavened by touch and talent, imbued perhaps by both of his grandfathers, who played professional soccer and represented the national teams of Uruguay and Colombia. Talent runs in the family, and so does being left-footed, a commodity, then and now, that ratchets up the value of any player, but especially attackers.
"Yes, that is good for me!" he says of being a lefty with a taste for goals. "Both of my grandfathers were forwards. My father played, too, but he never played professional soccer. My father was left-footed, too.
"I was always growing up with soccer. I have it in my blood, you know? When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a professional soccer player. That was my dream. Now I am in my dream."
The dream is far from complete. Morrow stresses Toja is still adjusting to the frantic and physical style of MLS, as well as its sometimes chaotic, choppy play. He led the league last year with 83 fouls; most were a product of aggressiveness and impatience rather than cynicism or brutality. After playing Toja in a variety of midfield roles last year, Morrow has deployed him behind the forwards to accentuate his attacking prowess.
"He always wants to be on the ball and that's also related to us keeping him higher up the field where he can be a little bit more dangerous, and him to be more patient for us to get the ball up to him in good positions," says Morrow. "In terms of his fouling, he does get impatient with his tackling. He's got a slightly unorthodox way of tackling, challenging. It's become a little bit of a trademark for him, his drag-back tackle. It's kind of unique, and he gets called up for it now and again. But it think it's a lot to do with just his style of play and strength on the ball and his impatience to win it back sometimes."
FAST START. At the All-Star break last year, Toja had already scored six goals. Eventually he'd tie Carlos Ruiz for the team lead with seven. Toja and fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Angel netted the MLS goals in a 2-0 All-Star Game victory against Scottish club Glasgow Celtic, which despite the non-competitive circumstances was a welcome achievement for a player yearning for a move to Europe in the next few years.
"Most of the time you get players near the end of their careers, and now we bring in players that have a number of years left to play," says Angel of the young breed of player being lured to MLS that Toja personifies. "Juan is a perfect example. He had an unbelievable season [last] year and he can only look forward."
Santa Fe had loaned Toja to River Plate in 2006. He played five Copa Libertadores matches and scored a goal but couldn't crack the regular lineup and garnered only three league appearances. Angel and FCD teammate Dario Sala had preceded him at River, where fierce competition for spots and off-the-field politics can stifle ambitious players, no matter how talented.
Toja says he was unhappy not playing at River and tried to find another club rather than go back to Santa Fe. He was in his Buenos Aires apartment when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was his mother, telling him she'd taken a call from a team in the United States.
QUICK LEARNER. Toja spoke very little English when he met up with his FC Dallas teammates, a few of whom speak Spanish. But rather than gravitating toward those who shared his language, Toja sought out players of his own age, both to share peer experiences and learn a new language as quickly as possible.
"That's something that really impressed us from the word 'go,'" says Morrow. "Even on our first few road trips, he insisted on being with guys who only spoke English and it was amazing really how quickly his English came on. We really don't have any problems sitting down and conversing in English. It's a credit to him he's wanted to fit into his culture so fast."
Santa Fe wanted to extend his loan deal, but MLS instead bought his rights and might well cash in nicely if he moves on to a foreign club. This season, Toja is fitting into a new formation as well as a new role. The acquisition of Mexican defender Duilio Davino prompted Morrow to switch to a 3-4-1-2 system, with Davino as the central defender and Toja the player being two forwards.
"My position I play more close to the goal and I have more opportunity to score and I like it, but if I have to play more back, I don't care," says Toja, who prefers not to play near the touchline, as he did at times last year. "I feel comfortable doing that. Last year I played a lot of positions in the midfield and it doesn't matter."
In the first two games of the 2008 season, Toja gave a pair of lessons on how to use the right flank with a left foot.
When Bobby Rhine played a ball to Abe Thompson on the right side of the box in the season opener, Toja circled into space and as two defenders converged, collected Thompson's pass and smashed a left-footed shot past Chivas USA keeper Brad Guzan.
A week later against Houston, he dribbled at the defense into the same area but instead of setting himself up for the shot or crossing with his right foot, he squared the ball with the outside of his left foot to Kenny Cooper, whose first-time shot wriggled underneath goalie Tony Caig for one of FCD's three goals.
Morrow believes teams will concentrate more on stopping Toja this season. That attention, plus his workrate and mobility, should open up more room for the two central midfield players, Pablo Ricchetti and Andre Rocha. They registered a combined three assists in the team's first three games.
Off the field, Toja fields numerous requests for personal appearances, isn't adverse to enjoying a bit of the nightlife, and revels in an environment much different than the pressure-cooker of Bogota or Buenos Aires.
"You play soccer, everybody knows you, you are popular, it is kind of a famous thing," he says of the South American soccer life. "Here you play soccer and you are like normal people."
Toja says it doesn't matter that soccer players aren't famous in the United States. What matters to Toja most are his mother, relatives and teammates, and a brother he hardly got to know but thinks of every day.
"So I have an angel," he says. "That is how I look at it, I have an angel."
(This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)