22114_supplied_benji_joya_3 Photo courtesy Chicago Fire
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Now with Chicago, Benji Joya "Hungry for Success"

Twenty-year-old Benji Joya took a circuitous route to Major League Soccer, and now that he's here the Chicago Fire midfielder is eager to make a positive impression.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 21, 2014
2:09 PM
THE CHICAGO FIRE suffered through a disappointing 2013 campaign, but there are reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season.

For starters, veteran coach Frank Yallop is now running the show, which should provide stability and leadership. And Mike Magee, Major League Soccer’s reigning MVP, is returning for his first full season with the club, which should bring continuity to the attack.

On top of that, the acquisition of former U.S. U-20 midfielder Benji Joya might just provide a welcome spark in the middle of the field.

Joya, 20, was formally acquired by MLS earlier this month from Santos Laguna. He was placed in an allocation lottery, which the Chicago Fire won. The announcement put a smile on Joya’s face, as it immediately transported him back to one of the highlights of his young career.

Back in September 2012, an 18-year-old Joya made his senior-team debut for Santos Laguna in a friendly against the Fire in Toyota Park. In the 24th minute of that match, Joya collected the ball and moved to the top of the box before hitting a perfect strike that curled just inside the near post, giving Santos Laguna a 1-0 lead in a match than would end in a 2-2 draw.

“It’s a lot of memories I build when I think of Chicago and Toyota Park,” Joya told American Soccer Now from the Fire’s preseason camp. “Thinking about that day makes me really happy.”

Joya is hoping to create more memories, and even more goals, for the Fire in the years ahead. And so far he has made a terrific first impression. Joya earned an assist in a 2-0 preseason win over D.C. United on February 9 and then scored the game-winner in a 1-0 win rematch between the two clubs.

“So far everything has been going great,” Joya said. “The trainings have been intense. It’s been fun. The team has been working hard. We have something in mind and that’s to be champions. I want to be a champion in my first year in MLS.”

Joya’s road to Major League Soccer was anything but smooth. He grew up in San Jose and eventually became a standout performer with local club DeAnza Force. During this time he worked part-time with his mother in her janitorial service business to help the family make ends meet.

Eventually he was discovered by Santos Laguna and progressed quickly to the club’s first team, where he would make his Liga MX debut in 2012. His early success helped him rise to prominence with the U.S. U-20 team under Tab Ramos, where he would become an integral part of the team that would advance to the U-20 World Cup in Turkey.

Just as Joya’s career looked set to take off, however, he developed a rare muscle injury that forced him to the sidelines when he returned to Mexico following the U-20 World Cup. He attempted to play through the injury but in doing so made it worse. Eventually he was placed on the shelf and fell out of favor with Santos.

“When I got back from the World Cup, I was injured,” Joya explained. “I could hardly lift up my leg. I was out basically 10 weeks. It was hard and I just really wanted to get back on the field. I remember in my 8th week, I played but I just didn’t feel right. [By] that time the coach had his eyes on other players.”

Even though the door at Santos Laguna was closing on Joya, another one was opening as MLS saw an opportunity to bring in a young American who is also a 2016 Olympic hopeful. For Joya, moving to the American domestic league was an alluring option.

“Coming back here was not a tough decision,” Joya said. “It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, [having grown] up watching the San Jose Earthquakes. It made me always want to play in MLS. Back then in San Jose they used to play at Spartan Stadium and had Landon Donovan, Dwayne De Rosario. They were players that made me just want to play here.”

Recent developments within the league increased Joya's desire to return to the U.S.

“There’s a lot of talent and a lot of good players from Europe are coming here now," Joya said. "Dempsey is a player I look up to a lot. It made me want to come to MLS and show that I have talent as well. I’m willing to work hard for the Chicago Fire and prove to myself and family I belong.”

The Fire rolled out the welcome wagon. When he first arrived with the team in Florida, Joya was assigned to room with Magee and was given playing time immediately.

“I spoke to at least six to eight people about Benji, and I've seen enough, not a lot, but everybody had good things to say about him,” Yallop said when the Fire acquired Joya. “He looks like he plays a No. 8, which is a two-way midfielder. He has very good instincts. Any player who goes with a team like Santos Laguna, to play with that team, you've got to have something.”

As for the differences between MLS and Liga MX, Joya is already making adjustments.

“Here it’s fast and tense,” Joya said of MLS. “They’re going back and forth. But over there in Mexico, I think it’s calmer and they build up from the back. Here in Chicago we’re trying to do that. I obviously think I have to learn more and I will as I keep on training.”

Chicago will open its season on March 9 in California against Chivas USA. Joya has a large contingent of family and friends who are planning to make the trip down from San Jose to attend what could be his MLS debut. Often it takes young players time to break into a team and begin earning first-team minutes. Joya, however, is motivated to be on the field at the StubHub Center when the season begins.

“Stuff happens for a reason,” Joya said. “Now I am right here in MLS. I am trying to show Frank Yallop he has a player who he can count on and trust. I’m just excited for the season to start. I know I’m going to be there. I just want it.

"I am really hungry for success.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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