Eric Avila came to Toronto to get a chance to start and he is doing just that.
This week Eric Avila will get to experience a bit of a home coming. The 24 year old midfielder spent the first three plus seasons of him MLS career playing for FC Dallas, having been drafted by the club in 2008. Avila left college, at UC Santa Barbara, a year early to sign a Generation Adidas contract so it was a bit of a surprise when he slipped all the way to 19th in that years draft. FC Dallas were probably quite happy to be able to pick up the talented midfielder at that stage in the draft, knowing that he came with quite the impressive resume.
While playing for UCSB, Avila was a key part of the school's first ever NCAA division I soccer title when he scored the game winning goal against State rivals UCLA to cap off his sophomore year. He followed that up with a junior year where he only played in 20 games but still managed to collect four goals and eight assists. Avila was also a regular in the US National youth sides. He spent some time in the US U17 residency program in Florida and during that time he collected 20 appearances for the youth national team. He was also a regular with the U20 team during his college years as he made 10 appearances for them.
It seemed that when Avila signed that Generation Adidas contract and came out of college a year early he was on course to one day potentially make the senior national team and be a star in MLS. It never really worked out that way for Avila though as in Dallas he was primarily used as a depth player who was often called upon as a late substitute when they needed an injection of energy. It is an important role and Avila did well enough in it to endear himself to the fans but it was not the starting role that he seemed destined for.
In Dallas Avila would make 63 appearances and collected very few goals but he will always be remembered by their fans for his role in their MLS Cup run in 2010. Avila scored a stoppage time winner in the first leg against Real Salt Lake in that season's Western Conference semifinals. It was an effort that kick started Dallas' run and made Avila a favourite to many fans.It was not all roses for Avila in Dallas though. He was excelling in that substitute role in Dallas under Schellas Hyndman but that was not the role he wanted. Avila wanted more minutes and the chance to be a starter but that was just not coming in Dallas. In the end, Dallas decided to give him the chance to take on a bigger role by trading him to Toronto FC. In return FC Dallas received Maicon Santos who was struggling for form in Toronto and seemed to spend more of his time sulking. It would be one of the many deals made between the two teams over the course of the season but this one probably turned out the best for TFC.
After joining TFC in the summer window Avila would go on to make 9 appearances including getting to start in 8 matches. Those 8 inclusions in the starting lineup were just one fewer than he had in his entire time with Dallas so it would seem that he got his wish of being used as more of a key player. He only came off the bench one time during that stretch so it was clear that he was not being used in a completely different role.
Under Aron Winter, Avila would be used almost exclusively as the point in the point forward midfield triangle. It was a role that came with a lot of responsibility in the 4-3-3 system that Winter employed and it only got harder when the team was shifting into more of a 5-2-3. It meant that Avila was being asked to both play a role in the attack and be a major part of the link between the backline and the attackers. It was a role that Avila did not fully flourish in and he often seemed to get overwhelmed in the crowded middle of the park. He only managed to pick up one goal, in a 1-1 draw against the San Jose Earthquake at BMO Field, and one assist.
This season, it looked like he was set to head back into a decreased role. With Joao Plata returning to the club and Reggie Lambe being signed it looked like the wings would be covered and that would free Ryan Johnson up to spend more time at CAM. Then there was the introduction of Luis Silva who the Reds selected in the 2012 SuperDraft. Silva also came from UCSB and after an impressive preseason and showing some good early season form it looked like he would take over the spot and once against relegate Avila to a role of the bench.
Avila was cup-tied from his time in Dallas which meant he was ruled out of the four big games to start the season against the LA Galaxy and Santos Laguna. With Silva starting those games it would have seemed likely that Avila would see increased minutes in the league with other players being rested. That was not the case though as he only played 105 minutes in the club's first six league matches with his only start and longest outing coming in the opener against Seattle where he logged 59 minutes.
It looked almost as though he was lacking fitness and was not ready to go for the start of the season. His slow start was made worse by the fact that Silva and Johnson were both on good form and the coach was likely just going with the hot hands. That changed though as other attackers cooled off and the defeats kept on piling up. Avila would get his chance for another start in the sixth game of the MLS season against the Chicago Fire and this time he made it stick.
Since that 3-2 defeat to the Fire where Avila played 85 minute he was been including in the starting lineup nine times in a row. His 10 league starts are already more than he made last season or during his entire time with FC Dallas and it seems that he is finally starting to come good on all the promise he had shown as a teenager. He has even chipped in with a goal this season against Real Salt Lake.
He has seen his role changed along with the change to the new head coach. He is spending a lot less time in the middle of the park and is instead being played on the wing more often and it has given him the freedom to play his game. The extra space on the wing has seen him become more involved in the game despite being less of an attacking threat. The most telling stat is that on the season he has completed 176 of his 243 passes (72%) which has remained consistent under both coaches but what has really changed is the amount he is turning the ball over. Under Winter he was tackled and lost possession once in every 7.4 minutes of playing time. Under Mariner that number is now once in every 10.7 minutes. It may not seem like a whole lot but it goes to show that he is a lot more comfortable on the ball when given more time and space out wide.
With his career having been rejuvenated at Toronto FC, Avila is now set to return to Dallas for the first time. The last time the two teams met was in the CCL so he was not eligible to play but come Wednesday night he will almost certainly get the chance to square off against his old team. It is a team that still features a lot of faces that were there during Avila's time in Texas and many of them remain in contact. It will certainly be a special night for Avila going up against the likes of Brek Shea and it will be a special night for TFC fans who will be once again reminded of last season's 3-0 win at Pizza Hut Park.