BRIAN SCIARETTA - Monday, December 24, 2012
With World Cup qualifiers fast approaching for the US U-20 team, midfielder Benji Joya is confident that the team is peaking at the right time.
Joya, 19, has been a regular with the US U-20 team as he has been called up by head coach Tab Ramos for nearly every camp this entire cycle. The current camp concluded on Friday with a resounding 4-0 win over Venezuela.
For Joya, the biggest improvement he has noticed has been better team chemistry and understanding of what Ramos is expecting.
"I do see the growth," Joya told YA. "I think we're more united. We see what the coach wants. We're opening up to being more confident and we're getting into the same mentality which is to win."
While Ramos is known for wanting to implement an attacking style, Joya is playing a more reserved role in his system. At his club, Santos Laguna, Joya normally plays as a right winger but can cut into the middle because he is also very strong with his left foot. For the US team, however, he has been playing in central midfield in a deeper lying position.
The position is new for Joya but he feels comfortable there and he appreciates the value in learning a new position.
"I'm a holding midfielder [with the U-20s] and I play as an ‘8,'" Joya explained. "At Santos I play as a winger but I don't see the big difference as long as I do a good job. It benefits me because I learn another position."
It has been a transformative year so far for Joya who signed a professional contract with Santos Laguna last December after impressing on a trial. Growing up in San Jose and emerging as a standout player with his youth club, DeAnza Force, Joya was also very close with his family in the area.
While in high school, Joya often worked for his mother in the janitorial service she ran in the Bay Area and the offer to join Santos would mean he would have to leave his family. His family supported his move to Santos Laguna and encouraged him to pursue his goal of becoming a professional player.
"It was pretty hard," Joya said of leaving home. "Coming from San Jose and leaving my family behind obviously going to find my dream was difficult. When I first got there, [Santos Laguna winger] Carlos Morales talked to me and told me I was supposed to forget about my family and start thinking about my future. Obviously I can't forget about my family but at the same time I was able to manage both."
In his first season, Joya surprised many by earning a spot in the first team. He frequently made the bench and appeared in four Liga Mx games including one start. He also made a start in a game against Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Joya credits his breakthrough to the team's head coach at the time, Benjamin Galindo, who recognized his hard work. He admits that he was very nervous in his first few games but his teammates helped him through the process.
"The work I put in really helped," Joya said. "Benjamín Galindo saw that. He gave me the opportunity and I took the chance. I did a good job. I get nervous when I play but now that I've had a preseason with the first team, it's way different. I think I'm more united with the team and my teammates give me more confidence."
It was Galindo who gave Joya his opportunity with the first team but the team struggled during the Apertura and finished in 15th place in Liga Mx. Historically Santos Laguna is one of Mexico's stronger teams and even won the Clausura title in 2012.
With the disappointing finish, Galindo was fired in November and was replaced by Portuguese coach Pedro Caixinha who had never coached in Mexico before. Before he arrived in the recent camp with the US U-20 team, Joya had been in preseason with Santos under Caixinha and is happy with how things have gone so far with the new coach.
"It's going well," Joya said. "I did a good job. Hopefully the new coach, Pedro Caixinha, likes what I've brought into the new team. He didn't really know me but he saw me play in the playoffs [with U-20 team for Santos]. He liked what he saw because the next day he called me to report with the first team. I was happy because I didn't know what was going to happen. Benjamin Galindo was the coach who gave me my debut but he left. I had to catch Pedro Caixinha's eye and I think it worked."
Santos Laguna will open the 2013 Clausura tournament on January 5 with a visit to San Luis. Joya knows that the upcoming season more will be expected of him but his personal goal is to help Santos Laguna return to the top of the Liga Mx title.
Despite his young age, he is very confident in his abilities to continue to build off his very successful year in 2012.
"Next season I want to get my spot in the starting eleven, which I'm doing a good job right now," Joya concluded. "And if not, at least just coming off the bench and getting minutes. Everyone wants to get minutes on the first team but being in the starting eleven would be great."