At this time two years ago, Mason Toye would’ve never expected to be a second-year striker in the MLS, helping lead Minnesota United to its first postseason berth in club history.
Not after scoring just three goals in his first nine matches at Indiana back in 2017.
And certainly not after being sent on loan to USL Championship side Colorado Switchbacks FC in 2018 and USL League One side in 2019 for a combined 12 games.
However, after his two-goal performance against LAFC at the beginning of September made him a trendy name on Twitter and vaulted Minnesota United into the playoffs, Toye is on the verge of becoming one of America’s top-level strikers.
And he’s only 21 years old.
Toye committed to IU when he was a sophomore in high school, unusual for collegiate soccer players. When he was younger, North Carolina was the school he wanted to go to. But after talking to the staff at UNC, it no longer seemed like a fit.
Enter Todd Yeagley and his staff at IU. Technically, the Hoosiers were the first team to actually start recruiting Toye. He ran with it, no doubts in his mind.
“I just kind of fell in love with the school,” Toye said in a recent phone interview. "I fell in love with the program and the whole coaching staff and coach Yeagley. They were just top class and it was kind of a no-brainer for me because there was no better school than this.”
IU’s 2017 recruiting class was ranked No. 4 in the nation by Top Drawer Soccer. It was headlined by names like Justin Rennicks and Griffin Dorsey, two players ranked in the top-30 of the overall rankings.
Toye barely cracked the top-100 of the TDS rankings. He was 42 spots behind fellow striker and current IU junior Thomas Warr. There was reason for mellowed expectations as Toye transitioned from Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey to one of the top college soccer programs in the nation.
“We knew he was going to be a pro-level player, it was just how quickly," Yeagley said. "I don’t think we had a timetable. You’ve got to kind of just trust the process, so many things had to happen. And Mason did.”
Eventually he figured it out. A goal in his first career game. His first career start and another goal in the third game of the season, a 5-1 win over San Francisco.
Toye adjusted to the speed of the game and the 6-foot-3 freshman — less than a month from turning 19 — earned a start against Northwestern on Sept. 17, 2017. It was his third and he never gave the spot up.
“I had to just work my way into making coach Yeagley’s job a lot harder in saying I wasn’t going to be the starter,” Toye said. “I was scoring goals and making plays to help the team. I kind of just got it and didn’t let it go the rest of the season.”
Toye’s speed and ability to beat defenses became very evident during IU’s dominant stretch in the middle of the 2017 season. While fellow freshman goalie Trey Muse and the IU defense were amidst a stretch of nine straight shutouts, Toye was starting to find the back of the net with extreme regularity.
“It’s a good reflection of the guys we have here,” Yeagley said. “He was pushed every day by guys that made him better. The details we hit here made him better. The games here made him show up, he had to perform.”
He scored six goals over those nine matches, including a pair of braces against Ohio State and Evansville. Teams found it hard to track Toye on the field as became comfortable in the attacking forward role.
“It separates you from a lot of different players,” Toye said. “It’s why you get paid to do it and get paid a lot of money if you can score goals. That’s why forwards get paid the most money. It makes you a lot more valuable as a player.”
He never thought there was a chance he would leave for the professional ranks after his first season. He knew he wanted to leave early, but after the start he had, it didn’t seem possible.
But after going through his dominating stretch, there were rumblings around the program that Toye could potentially be offered a Generation Adidas contract. That contract is offered to some of the top underclassmen in college soccer to guarantee them a contract and a draft spot in the MLS, keeping them within the realms of American Soccer.
However, IU was in the home stretch of a dominating season that saw it hold the No. 1 ranking for a healthy portion of the season. Behind the penalty kick heroics of Muse in the NCAA Quarterfinal against Michigan State, IU advanced to the College Cup.
The NCAA Championship in 2017 between IU and Stanford was a battle of two powerhouses in college soccer. But in double overtime, Stanford ended the Hoosiers' season. Toye didn’t even record a shot on goal.
“It was probably the worst feeling that you could have,” Toye said. “If you look at the season, we kind of came up empty handed. All three things we were trying to accomplish we fell short at. It was really tough because that was the one that everyone wanted and we felt like we had all the pieces to the puzzle.”
Toye calls that 2017 team the best team in program history to never win a trophy.
Yet, he still calls it one of the best experiences in his young life. That Hoosier squad was loaded with players currently playing professional soccer including Rennicks, Dorsey and Muse.
“It’s crazy to think about how many professionals we had on that team and even just in my class of freshmen,” Moye said. “I don’t think we realize how good we were and how many future pros we would have. All those guys are just great guys.”
He signed the Generation Adidas contract just after the end of IU’s tournament run. In the draft, Toye expected to go No. 6 to Orlando City. But after being passed on by Orlando, Toye found a new home at Minnesota United, one of the MLS’ newest clubs.
“I really didn’t know a whole lot [about them],” Toye said. “I knew they had a new stadium on the way and that they had a lot of snow, but that was about it.”
Toye really struggled at the beginning of his MLS career. Mind you, he was still 19 years old when he made his debut against Orlando City.
Like in college, the pace of the game started to pick up at a new level and all of a sudden he was playing against the likes of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, players who once dominated the international level.
Even after two stints in the USL, Toye never lost the form he discovered at IU. In nine starts this season, Toye has found the back of the net four times, including the breakout performance against LAFC.
That stretch earned Toye a call-up to the United States Men’s National U-23 team.
He scored in goal in the match against Japan. A continued stretch of strong play could potentially see him named to the team that will head to the Olympic qualifiers next year.
“He just had his head down and just kind of grinded,” Yeagley said. “He grew up in a short amount of time. I think we were a small part of his progression. He’s continued to grow and has a lot of years ahead of him.”
It’s all part of the journey that Toye started back in New Jersey and has taken all the way to Bloomington, St. Paul and everywhere in between. What started as a passion to play what his brother played has turned him into one of the fearsome American strikers.
And he’s only 21 years old.