ST. PAUL — It’s easy to point to Minnesota United striker Mason Toye’s two-goal game against Los Angeles FC in September as his breakout performance of 2019.
The goals were stunning strikes in the match’s opening half-hour. Each was followed by Toye’s maraca-shaking celebration, and the 2-0 result propelled Minnesota to a head-turning road victory over the best team in MLS.
In the wake of that game, many wondered aloud if Toye, then 20 years old, would become a cog for the struggling U.S. men’s national team.
Still, that game is not Toye’s favorite.
For him, it was scoring the deciding goal in a 2-1 victory over the Portland Timbers in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal in August. It came in front of the home crowd at Allianz Field and sent the Loons to the club’s first U.S. Open Cup final.
Toye picks that game because of its significance and because it was the first time Toye’s father, Vince, saw him score in person.
“I pointed to him after I scored,” Toye recalled last week as preseason camp for the 2020 season began in Blaine, Minn. “But after the game, I went over to him and had a very special moment.”
The Toyes then ate key lime pie — Mason’s favorite — at the Cheesecake Factory before retreating to Mason’s west suburban home to relax.
Toye’s peaks last season, including a two-goal game against Montreal in July, came with valleys, as well, such as a red card for spitting on FC Dallas defender Reggie Cannon in August. MLS slapped Toye with an additional one-game suspension for the unsportsmanlike act.
And other than those two goals against LAFC, Toye was scoreless in his last 11 MLS appearances, including a 23-minute substitute stint in the 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup first-round playoff game in October.
Toye’s finish was a primary reason he will not be with the U.S. men’s national team Saturday for an exhibition against Costa Rica in Carson, Calif. United defender Chase Gasper, meanwhile, could make his debut for the U.S.
Toye received a call-up to the U.S. under-23 team last September — his first involvement at any level of the national system — and he scored for the U.S. But he learned on New Year’s Eve that he would not be part of the national team’s January camp.
He was playing a video game when U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter telephoned.
“It caught me real off guard,” Toye said. “… He knew I had a good year and told me that obviously the drop-off at the end of the year held me back. Just inconsistency and stuff like that was the big reason they didn’t end up bringing me in.”
But Berhalter encouraged Toye to stay resolute going into 2020.
“He said that I’m in a good place in Minnesota where I can compete and start as a striker,” Toye recalled. “We don’t have a lot of strikers from the United States starting in the MLS, so if I can take up a consistent starting role and continue to score goals, I’m right there. I can progress and move into a role with the national team.”
The Loons announced Tuesday that Toye’s competition for the starting striker spot will be Luis Amarilla, a 24-year-old Paraguayan who led Ecuador’s top league in scoring last season.
“I feel like there were enough highs through the second half of the season for myself to know that my team can trust me to score goals,” Toye said. “Going into next season, it was really big for me confidence-wise, knowing that I can compete regardless of who comes in.”
Toye’s primary point of improvement last year was timing his runs behind the opposing center backs in the 18-yard box. The second-year pro finished with six goals and three assists in 820 minutes in 2019, up from no goals and one assist in 340 minutes as a rookie in 2018.
Toye is one of the few Loons players to do most of his offseason work at the National Sports Center, and with assistant coach Ian Fuller, Toye has set new criteria for 2020.
The first aim is more maturity. Toye said he reflected on the incident with Cannon “for a week” after it happened. He reached out to Cannon, a U.S. national team member, via text message and they worked to put the incident behind them.
“It was a quick conversation. I was remorseful and he understood,” Toye said. “He was a good guy about it. … I’m sure we will cross paths again. We are in the same (Western) conference and, hopefully, some national team stuff can come about and we can actually have a real conversation.”
The next objective Fuller outlined for Toye was positioning in transition, such as how to start a high press when an opponent has the ball near its own goal.
“How can I be effective for the team and still be a positive influence on the team, regardless of if I’m scoring goals or assisting?” Toye said. “Can I be a player to rely on to keep the ball for us? And defensively be smart so I can press forward well?”
The third objective for Toye is to break through and score on headers.
“Until he scores a goal with his head, that is certainly an area we want to work on,” Fuller said of Toye, a 6-foot-3 former basketball player in New Jersey. “He can jump, he’s got good timing and his box movement is good.”
Now, across many areas, it’s about putting it all together.