All of the signs pointed to Orlando City’s left back conundrum being solved in mid-December. The club sent the eighth overall SuperDraft selection to Atlanta United for Donny Toia. He ticked all of the boxes — he was an MLS veteran, had experience with Head Coach Jason Kreis and his system, and was solid in defense, something the Lions’ back line has lacked since it entered the league two years ago. Having Toia cleaning up behind Kaká on the left hand side of the field seemed like a natural fit.
But when the lineup for the preseason match against the Philadelphia Union was revealed, Toia was not at left back. In fact, he wasn’t with the first team at all. Instead, a fellow newcomer in Victor “PC” Giro was the one tapped to start at fullback across from incumbent right back Rafael Ramos, leaving Toia on the sidelines. That combination continued against Toronto FC. At the jersey unveiling, Kreis told the gathered crowd that he was working hard with a specific group of four defenders so they could grow accustomed to one another. Toia seemed to be left out in the cold.
That changed when Ramos went down in the middle of the match against Toronto. After injuring both hamstrings, an issue that has plagued him for the last year, Rafa will be out for up to six weeks. With Kevin Alston also sidelined with a hamstring problem, the Lions’ depth on the right flank seemed thin. Enter Toia, who manned the right back spot for the first half of the second match against the Reds and should be next in line for the job.
Right back is not an alien position to Donny Toia. After Ambroise Oyongo snatched the starting job from him in Montreal last year, the Impact experimented with Toia on the opposite side. He performed well there, starting 15 matches for the side that would eventually fall a few goals short of the MLS Cup final. For Orlando, a team that has been desperate for solidity at the back, Toia could be a welcome relief from the past two seasons of goals allowed from all angles. Toia has all the makings of becoming a staple for the Lions, especially with the consistent turmoil at fullback.
For all of his potential and ability in the final third, there is no guarantee that Ramos can consistently make himself available. He has only appeared in 37 league matches across the last two seasons due to constant injuries and suspensions. Rafa has a habit of starting five matches consecutively and then falling off the wagon. He has only started more than five straight once during his career in purple — 12 matches between May 8 and July 18 of 2015 — and there haven’t been any signs of that changing soon. Alston, who started 21 games in Ramos’ stead last year, leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive end. He’s a decent option to have as a reserve, but Orlando would likely be hard-pressed to make the jump into the playoffs with him starting that consistently again.
So Toia has an opportunity to not only hold down the starting role while Ramos rehabs his hamstrings for the third time in a year, he has the ability to make that position his. The Lions have plenty of options in attack, what they need to do is stop leaking goals. Toia may not get forward and provide width for Matias Perez Garcia as often as Orlando faithful might like, but if he can help keep clean sheets and add more points to the standings that’s all that will matter in the end.
Ramos, despite the hype around him since joining the team in 2014, has not been able to do that even when healthy. After a disappointing start to the 2016 season, there were questions about whether Alston should step in instead. Now that City has a younger, more dependable option, perhaps Rafa’s time as the starting right back could be at its end.
Toia will have his chance to earn the job starting March 5 against New York City FC. If he can help contain one of the league’s most potent offenses, it could be his job to lose.