It’s January 29th, 2019, and you’ve just scored a hat trick. Your name is splashed across twitter, supporters declaring you, both seriously and humorously, to be the club’s greatest prospect in years. There’s one problem; you don’t actually play for the club you just scored your hat trick for. Your name is Jiro Barriga Toyama. You’re on trial. You’re also about to become mildly famous without ever signing a professional contract.
The match in question, a preseason friendly between Minnesota United (MLS) and FC Tucson (a fourth division club that was in the midst of preparing to move to the third division), was meant to be little more than an early stepping stone in Minnesota United’s preseason. Instead, it marked the beginning of a strange journey which would lead a surprise star to one of the United States’ newest, and most exciting, clubs.
Born in Panama to a Colombian father and Japanese mother, Jiro Barriga Toyama would find his home life changed dramatically after the passing of his father due to Amyloidosis shortly after the family moved to Japan. Only two years old at the time, Jiro soon became part of a family with battles to fight in and outside of the home.
Barriga Toyama explained that his heritage was not always welcome in Japan. “My sisters and I had a difficult time adapting to the new environment at first. Being half Japanese and Colombian, it made it harder… Japan is a monoracial country, not multicultural like the United States. Unfortunately, we often experienced racial discrimination in school.”
With his sister having already left for the School of American Ballet, in New York City, the now-football player was also on the path to ballet, auditioning for the same school at age 9. Despite being accepted, a passion for Football pulled Barriga Toyama back to his roots. Supported by an ever-dedicated mother, Jiro stayed in Japan and set his sights on the pitch.
Barriga Toyama would find his first burst of club play when he joined JEF United Chiba, named JEF United Ichihara until 2003, at the academy level. Founded in its first form in 1946, the club would become a founding member of the J League in 1993, just two years before Barriga Toyama’s birth.
Starting at the age of 12, he would become a constant in the academy for six years, though issues would arise for the young talent. “My experience with them wasn’t all positive as I didn’t start often until my last year there. I always felt like an outsider and felt detached from the team. Some coaches even told me I would never become a professional soccer player. But I didn’t leave the team because I didn’t want to give up on my dream and I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Negativity from those around him would continue to put pressure on Toyama, who would eventually turn to the far away promises of collegiate soccer in the United States for a new pathway to his dream of professional football.
In 2013, the year he’d turn 18, Barriga Toyama departed from the Chiba academy. By the time 2014 had arrived, he’d moved to the United States to attend the first of his two colleges.
“During my last year in high school, when I was unsure if I wanted to continue playing soccer in college in Japan, one of my friends from Miami contacted me with the idea of possibly coming to America to play soccer at his college,” Barriga Toyama explains. “That was the beginning of my journey to the United States.”
The winger played his first burst of college ball with Barton Community College from 2014 to 2015 before moving to Florida Gulf Coast University, where he would eventually graduate in 2018. With over 50 appearances between the two schools, Barriga Toyama’s future ability was foreshadowed by his inability to escape starting games.
Barriga Toyama started 28 of his 31 collegiate appearances at Florida Gulf Coast, starting all 11 of his 2017 appearances.
Florida Gulf Coast soccer Head Coach Jesse Cormier, who coached Barriga Toyama in his final collegiate season, says that the starting streak was simply the logical outcome of the player’s quality. “He started every game for us when he was available. He has a great mixture of skill, dynamism, and competitive edge. Jiro is consistently good and was the deciding factor in many of our wins and when he got injured, we struggled through the games he missed.”
Cormier added that Barriga Toyama showed an ability to control and move in tight spaces that made him a bright star in 2017 despite missing a large portion of the season due to injury.
“He has a very deft first touch in tight spaces and utilizes his skill and quickness to break opposing pressure,” Cormier said. “He also combines well and has the energy to be involved transitionally on both the attacking and defending third. He has a tremendous energetic capacity to cover ground and compete.”
The Florida Gulf Coast and Barton athlete didn’t stop his development there, however, turning to the amateur leagues of the United States for further development.
Barriga Toyama made his first steps into the club sphere of American soccer when he played briefly for the Brooklyn Italians in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The NPSL is one of several leagues that are often called the fourth tier of the sport in the United States. Largely composed of college players in need of a development period between collegiate seasons in the summer, the leagues are largely seen as the nonleague equivalent for football in the United States.
Barriga Toyama was reported to have scored a goal for the Italians in their 4-2 win over Jersey Express in the U.S. Open Cup, the domestic cup of the United States. He would go on to play for FC Wichita in NPSL, appearing twice while scoring and assisting one goal.
He would finally experience an extended stay with a club in 2017, when he registered 11 appearances with K-W United FC in the Premier Development League (PDL), another fourth-tier league within the US. He would make two assists and help the club to a playoff run.
By the time Barriga Toyama stepped on to the pitch with Minnesota, awaiting his hat trick, he had composed a detailed career in college and amateur levels of soccer in the United States.
2019, however, wasn’t the first time Barriga Toyama had trialed with Minnesota United. Just a year earlier, in preparation for the 2018 season, Minnesota had welcomed Barriga Toyama in for a trial period. Promising as he was, injuries would prevent any contracts, Injuries populated his career often early on.
A skull fracture and shoulder dislocation would, however, prove only temporary obstacles. “I had many injuries the last few years. I think just my passion and the love I have for this sport Soccer motivated me to overcome all difficulties and obstacles. And now looking back, all those experiences made me a stronger person.”
The remaining year would bring a brief stint with the Laredo Heat in the NPSL. Laredo would win their conference that year, losing to the Little Rock Rangers in the following playoffs for the regional title. It would provide another burst of resume building for Barriga Toyama, but not the professional progression he was fighting for.
He would, however, get one more shot. A 2019 trial with Minnesota United would provide Jiro a chance to play with the MLS side again. He would feature multiple times in preseason, but his most pivotal performance would come against FC Tucson.
Tucson had previously played in the PDL. However, they had recently announced their move to USL League One, a newly founded league that functions as the third tier of the American Soccer Pyramid.
The soon-to-be pro side would prove the catalyst for the Florida Gulf Coast alum, who came in the second half as part of a mass substitution at the 45th minute mark. The following 45 minutes would prove a strange one, as Barriga Toyama would add not one, not two, but three goals to Minnesota’s tally in an eventual 9-2 win over Tucson.
The first goal came off of a largely lucky deflection, but Barriga Toyama’s second and third strikes would come from strong footwork, speed, and shooting from the Japanese-Colombian winger.
Before the fulltime whistle had even blown, Minnesota United supporters were raving for more.
Journalist Bridget McDowell, who principally reports for MLS Female and BGN Written, described the fantastical online burst of fame which hit Barriga Toyama. “Jiro Barriga Toyama caught the attention of Minnesota fans when he featured in multiple starting lineups for MNUFC… Toyama earned himself a cult following on Twitter when he recorded a hat trick during the Loons’ 9-2 win in the opener against FC Tucson on January 29th.”
Popular names within the Minnesotan soccer community like David Martin, known by the tag Offensive Loons Fan, and Bruce McGuire helped stoke interest when they applied their own positive views on the winger. Martin spoke for many fans when he proclaimed, “ANNOUNCE JIRO!!!!” in response to a training image which included the player.
Barriga Toyama himself was caught off guard by the support, having started once been an unwanted academy prospect. “I was really surprised with the reactions I received on social media after the hat trick from MNUFC preseason camp. All the positive comments I received made me really happy,” Toyama said. “After a game against Marquette University [for Forward Madison], a young boy brought me a card that said “Welcome to Madison” in Japanese. All these reactions from the fans and supporters became my new motivation to play and get better every day… I feel really lucky to have fans and supporters like this. I really want to give back by playing well and get good results.”
Jiro would never go not feature with the club at an official capacity, but he would find an opportunity to play professionally in the neighboring state of Wisconsin.
Forward Madison announced they had signed the player for their debut season in USL League One. The announcement touched on Barriga Toyama’s strange journey and initial attempts to make his way into the Minnesota United roster, “Although Barriga Toyama wasn’t signed to Minnesota United, there was another manager there who took notice of him.”
That manager, Daryl Shore, was the head of a Forward Madison squad that had recently announced an affiliation with Minnesota United. Affiliation has become common in American soccer, in part due to the lack of an open system. MLS franchises will often affiliate themselves with second or third division clubs in order to have a secure pathway to loan out developing talents, as well as to form a better network to find lower league talents to sign on.
Shore added in the signing announcement that, “Minnesota’s coaching staff brought him to our attention.”
Kyle Carr, one of many important figures within the Forward Madison supporters group known as The Flock, said “I was really excited. I had first heard of him when I saw him trial with Minnesota United, he seemed to be a quick fan favorite with them. When I saw he was going to be added to Madison that made things better as he had the skill and versatility to be vital to the roster. Once I saw him in person, the biggest thing I noticed was his speed; he is fast, and you can see it in the goals he’s scored and created.”
Barriga Toyama has played nine USL League One matches for Forward Madison as of the writing of this article, helping the club to a 2-2-4 start. The winger’s most notable performances, however, have come in the U.S. Open Cup. Barriga Toyama started in both of Madison’s first and second round matches in the cup, scoring against historied amateurs Milwaukee Bavarians and scoring and assisting against El Paso Locomotive of the USL, or second division. Madison would eventually lose in the third round to another second division club, Saint Louis FC.
Able to play several positions, Barriga Toyama has proven most effective at his current level as a winger, playing both on the left and right from match to match.
Jeff Rueter, a journalist covering soccer with The Athletic, included that reports projected Toyama as best suited to play as a left back or left wing back at the MLS level. Currently at the third tier of US Soccer, Toyama has enjoyed a role in the midfield and as a winger for Madison.
Madison’s first season is very much still in its early stages and time will tell how well the club truly do this season, but results point to Jiro Barriga Toyama as a person with the power to help decide it.
Florida Gulf Coast Head Coach Jesse Cormier has only good things to say about the player he watched develop at the collegiate level. “So proud of him… He is a shining example of a person who came to this country seeking an opportunity to better himself and his life. And, through hard work, sheer determination, he has achieved his goal of playing professionally and invested in his future.”
Whether or not Jiro Barriga Toyama will ever sign for Minnesota United, or any other club, is unknown and up to the sands of time. What is known, however, is that Jiro’s story isn’t part of the usual narrative.
In a country where the stories of professional football are largely dictated by MLS draft picks, pricey designated players, and aging European stars, Jiro is something simply individual; a folk hero.
In many ways Jiro mimics his club’s desire to return to what American soccer was always meant to be; a pillar of uniquely combination of strange passions, strange names, and unforgettable stories. If you need to see the uniqueness for yourself, you’ll find Jiro at Breese Stevens Field, Madison, Wisconsin.
Faced with huge challenges, unwelcome at times in his own academy and country, Jiro Barriga Toyama has done what the coaches at the Chiba academy said would never happen; he made it.
By: Dominic Jose Bisogno
Photo: Forward Madison FC