JOYA ON THE RISE WITH SANTOS
Tab Ramos this week announced his US U-20 roster for the upcoming Marbella Cup and one of the team's top players, Benji Joya, will be taking part in the tournament.
Joya has been a regular with the US U-20 team since February but over the last month he as broken into the first team at his club, Santos Laguna. On September 22, on his 19th birthday, the winger made his Liga MX debut in a 0-0 draw against Jaguares when he came on as a second half substitute.
On September 30 he was again a second half sub in a 3-1 win over Atlante. After earning positive reviews in each of his first two appearances, he made his first ever start this past week in a 2-1 win over Atalante.
"I felt good," Joya told YA after his debut. "I was nervous by y teammates were cheering me up. I then felt confident."
As for his future with the club the rest of the season, Joya is optimistic that he can continue to contribute to the team. He knows it will be hard given his youth but he is determined.
"I'm confident I can but it depends on me," Joya said. "I made my debut but I have to find a way to stay on the first team and get my minutes. It's going to be hard work all the time."
Joya has had received a lot of support from the staff at Santos Laguna and his teammates there but no one has helped him more than fellow American Herculez Gomez.
When Joya arrived at Santos Laguna for a trial last summer, Gomez was one of the first players he sought out for advice and help. The two shared a lot in common. Both were from the United States but have Mexican heritage and both represent the United States internationally.
As Joya has progressed this year, it has been Gomez who has continued to offer support.
"When I first got here, I initially went to him and introduced myself," Joya recalled. "I knew he was American and was playing for the U.S national team. He's a goal scorer too so obviously I was going to go to him. He has great experience."
Gomez admits that he is fond of Joya but insists that the youngster does not need that much help because he is learning quickly on his own. In fact, he believes that Joya reminds him of himself when he was emerging as a young professional.
"He's very easy to get to like," Gomez said. "He got this way about him that reminds me a lot of when I first came up. He wants to put his head down and work. People like that are infectious and it's easy to help them."
It wasn't until December when Joya signed a professional contract with Santos Laguna but Gomez recalls specifically how good he was during his trial last summer.
During the that time, Santos Laguna's first team was plagued by injuries and they brought in a bunch of young players to make up the numbers for practice. One of the players was Joya who was there for his trial. He was there for about a week and he seized the moment.
"He's a good player," Gomez said of Joya's trial. "He came up and trained with us for a week [last summer] and he absolutely destroyed us. He destroyed our backline. We were pretty good last season too. Then I didn't see him for awhile and I remember talking to the team president about him. I remember telling him ‘you've got to do something. This kid's good.'"
So a little more than a year later, Joya is now on the first team at Santos Laguna. Just prior to stepping on the field last month for his debut, it was his mentor Gomez who was there for advice.
"I told him that this is something you've earned," Gomez said. "You will remember it for the rest of your career. It's your debut. I told him to just go out there and have fun. Just be you. I'll tell you what, it didn't look like his debut. I'm eager to see him grow."
The journey over the past year for Joya was indeed a long road. Before he signed his contract, he was going to high school and helping his mother on the side with the janitorial services she operates. US Soccer passed on Joya for the U-17 residency program and the next step for him was college where he was set to play for Cal State Bakersfield.
His club team at the time was De Anza Force who were one of the elite youth teams in the Bay Area of California. During a game against the San Jose Earthquakes academy, he was noticed by Santos Laguna scouts who arranged his trial.
After signing in December, he moved to Mexico and the club immediately began to transition him to the wing positions where he takes advantage of his speed and ability to use either foot effectively.
"When I first got here, I played as a number 10 but they have made me an outside midfielder," Joya explained. "I'm right footed but I like to play on right and cut in with my left. All the goals I've scored here have been with my left foot. I feel comfortable that way. I don't know why."
Despite being passed over by US Soccer for the U-17 national team, he has emerged as a key player for Ramos. His first camp was in February and he has been involved in every camp since.
As the son of two Mexican parents, Joya grew up a fan of the Mexican national team but since he has been with the U-20 team his allegiance is now firmly with the Stars and Stripes.
"I don't think I would play for Mexico," Joya said proudly. "I'm happy with the U.S.. Tab is a great coach. Since I first met him, I started liking him. He just lets us play soccer and that's what I like about him. He doesn't hold us back as long as the choices we make benefit the team."
At the upcoming Marbella Cup starting next week, the US U-20 team will be facing Scotland, Canada, and Azerbaijan. For Joya, it represents another opportunity to prove he belongs on the team that he hopes will play in next summer's U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
"I'm taking every chance I can to prove I belong," Joya stated. "The World Cup would be a dream-come-true."
As he continues to progress towards that dream, he will have his friend Herculez Gomez in his corner. Gomez knows that things can change for young players very quickly for both better and worse. While he knows Joya has the talent, he believes it will be his mental strength that gives him the edge over other players.
"He's a kid who definitely has talent," Gomez concluded. "He's mentally strong - which I like. So few people understand what it's like to leave your home, move to a place where you don't really know anyone and try to do something for you and your family. He knows what it takes. He's not for one second taking anything for granted. The sky is the limit. He gets it."