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Toja gives Revolution proven creator in the midfield

Juan Toja didn’t get an assist in the opener, but he was key to the only goal.

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Juan Toja didn’t get an assist in the opener, but he was key to the only goal.

FOXBOROUGH — On the surface, it seemed like a spontaneous reaction.

When Jerry Bengtson scored the Revolution’s first goal of the season in the 62d minute of last Saturday’s season-opening 1-0 victory at Chicago, the native Honduran ran to the corner of the pitch at Toyota Park and signaled for his teammates to join him in celebration.

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Kelyn Rowe, who was credited with an assist, and Juan Toja, who should have been credited with a secondary assist but was not, partook in Bengtson’s interpretation of a traditional Honduran dance, which wound up being not so spontaneous after all.

“Yeah, we planned it,’’ Toja said Wednesday after the Revolution practiced at Gillette Stadium in preparation for Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Union in Chester, Pa.

“Jerry explained to me how to do the dance,’’ Toja said. “He showed me some videos of it on YouTube and he told me, ‘I’m going to score and when I score, we’re going to celebrate.’ I told the guys, ‘If we score, this is what we’re going to do. So if you want to come over and celebrate with us, that’s what we’re going to do.’

“We scored and we did it, so it was fun.’’

The only thing that seemed to put a damper on the moment was when Toja went unrecognized by the official scorer for assisting on Bengtson’s goal.

“I’m still shocked by it,’’ said Revolution coach Jay Heaps, who said the team appealed to Major League Soccer to have Toja reconsidered for an assist. “I will argue that one, because the ability for him to take it out of the air, take two touches, and lay a perfectly weighted ball, so that Kelyn could then hit a one-time ball is [amazing].’’

Rowe took Toja’s touch pass and lofted a perfect chip over the Fire’s back line to Bengtson, who headed it home for the only goal of the match.

“I know what the ruling is, they want Marco Etcheverry and Steve Ralston [the MLS career assists leader with 135] never to be touched for assists ever again,’’ Heaps joked. “Because back in the day, I’m pretty sure if you even breathed on a second pass, you got an assist.

“But they were being a little bit harsh,’’ Heaps said, turning serious. “I think Juan, without question, deserves an assist on that goal.’’

The play, though, served as an example why the Revolution added Toja to their roster in August. A 27-year-old midfielder from Bogota, Toja last played in the MLS in 2008 with FC Dallas, where in two seasons he scored eight goals and had three assists in 43 games (42 starts), becoming a two-time MLS All-Star and fan favorite for his flamboyant shoulder-length hair and gritty attacking style.

Toja seemed like a perfect fit when he became available after spending four years playing in Europe.

“He’s an attacking player and he can break down defenses and he can score and he can set up goals. Those guys are hard to find,’’ said Revolution general manager Michael Burns. “That, coupled with his previous experience in the MLS, knowing the league, knowing the landscape, and speaking English, didn’t hurt.

“I’m not saying that was the deciding factor, but the fact he had been in the league, been around, and knows the league inside and out, those qualities are hard to find.’’

Toja’s fitness level was limited by back issues when he first joined the Revolution, which curtailed his playing time to five games. He went with the team to training camp in Tucson, where he was hampered by a knee injury, but has steadily improved and has begun to regain the form that made him famous with FC Dallas.

“I left [the MLS] in 2008, so it was fun but at the same time it was a lot of responsibility,’’ Toja said. “In my case, I left a pretty good image when I was playing here. I was so much younger and I was playing good and I went to Europe, so now this is a second challenge to show that I’m the same player.’’

That much was evident in the season opener, in which Toja logged 79 minutes in his first MLS start in five years.

“He’s got very good awareness,’’ Heaps said. “He did a very good job of not only playing that false nine but putting pressure on their center midfielder and also denying space to their center back. He did a nice job of taking away two players when he pressures.

“But when he gets the ball, that’s where he really shows some of his class and his ability to play one-touch balls and two-touch balls and create space for players. He does work the dirty areas and he sees the field and he knows the game. That’s what we want from him.’’

Toja seemed deserving of an assist on New England’s first goal of the season. “Yeah, I know,’’ he said.

What was important to Toja, though, was that Bengtson and Rowe invited him to join the celebration. The next time Revolution score, he hopes to make it a Toja party.

“We have a great team of great guys,’’ he said. “With those celebrations, we have a lot of fun. That means we have a lot of chemistry between us and it was our first game and we showed some interesting things and we have to keep doing those things to keep getting better.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.
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