For the longest time, the contest to land one of the 23 precious spots on the next American World Cup roster is a marathon. And then, as the calendar page folds over to a World Cup year, it suddenly turns into an all-out sprint.
Off to the side, a game of musical chairs breaks out, as the roster candidates jostle for playing time on the club level. In a pinch, tough decisions have to be made. Because United States men’s national head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, like just about all head coaches, has no time for players who aren’t playing.
So as January of this year dawned, Philadelphia Union midfielder Maurice Edu – or simply “Mo” to just about everyone – faced a problem few people could have anticipated given his career track. After being drafted first overall by Toronto FC in 2007, he ascended quickly. Within a year and a half, he was playing for Scottish powerhouse Glasgow Rangers. He became a regular in his second season and saw extended Champions League action the following two years.
Then Rangers went into liquidation and dropped into the fourth tier for the 2012-13 season. Edu needed to find a new soccer home. He signed with Stoke City of the English Premier League. And he didn’t play. Like, never. Well, once. A 10-minute appearance, back in October 2012. Tony Pulis never used him again. And his successor the following season, Mark Hughes, didn’t even put him on the bench, even though Edu had been a regular for Bursaspor when he went on loan to the Turkish side for half a season in January 2013.
With the World Cup hurtling into view, Edu, a veteran of 46 USA games, had to force an end game. Or he risked missing out on the trip to Brazil, in spite of having played well in South Africa in 2010.
And thus another opportunity presented itself to Major League Soccer, which had just lured Edu’s fellow national team mainstays Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley home with fat contracts. Like those two, Edu responded to the league’s show of reverence and respect. There were other options, but the Union’s hard sell swayed Edu to return to MLS on loan at just 27 years old last January.
“I wasn’t playing at Stoke,” he told FOX Soccer after the Union’s 2-1 defeat at New York on Wednesday. “For me this opportunity made sense. I was coming into a team where I felt really wanted and I thought it was beneficial for both parties in the sense that I could come and help this team and at the same time me as well. In the back of my mind the national team is there and that’s obviously a goal of mine. That’s around the corner and it’s important to be playing.”
Unlike the straightforward Dempsey and Bradley deals, Edu’s transaction took some time to complete. The Union loaned Edu from Stoke with an option to buy him outright at the end of the season. But for several weeks, Stoke, the Union and the league appeared to be haggling over who would pick up what portion of his contract, which runs through the summer of 2015. (The MLS Players Union lists Edu’s MLS salary as $650,000, but his overall contract – including any portion of his wages paid by Stoke – is believed to be worth significantly more.)
The Union’s persistence only served to charm Edu further. “For me, that was one of the main reasons I came here,” he said. “I came into a team where I felt really wanted. That’s a nice feeling to have. It was refreshing. I felt if I was going to make a change that was the right change for me.”
While the Union have only produce one win from eight matches, Edu has delivered the sort of authoritative performances that proved elusive among so many of his Designated Player predecessors in Philadelphia. “He’s given us a huge lift,” fellow midfielder Brian Carroll said. “He’s raised the excitement and awareness around this club.”
Shuttling from box to box, rather than playing as the straight holding midfielder he had been since leaving Toronto, Edu covers considerable ground. He wins balls, distributes from deep and joins the attack in the second wave. He sets the pace on a team that has transitioned to a more possession-oriented 4-3-3.
“He brings box-to-box dynamic play in the midfield that this club’s been looking for,” Carroll said. “He’s been a tremendous asset for us.” In just seven games, Edu has already scored twice, given an assist and won the Union a penalty.
He enjoys his new role, and attributes part of his decision to return stateside to its appeal. “The style that they want to play – I felt it was a good fit for me,” Edu said. “As a midfielder, you want to get touches and I felt this system was going to fit me and help me grow as a player. I have a good engine and that’s always been one of my good traits. Playing that role gives me a chance to fully take advantage of that.”
He has helped guide a young team making steady improvement. “He’s been a great influence, a calming presence on the field,” Union defender Amobi Okugo said. “Off the field, he knows how to lighten the mood.”
Experience has taught Edu not to get comfortable, though. He doesn’t want to look too far ahead or wonder what the Union might do with his purchase option at the end of the year. “I’m looking at Philly right now,” Edu said. “I’ve learned in my career that you don’t know what’s around the corner for you. You can hope for things and be optimistic about things but the reality is that you never know what’s going to happen to you.”
His time at Stoke still seems to sting him. He doesn’t think he got a fair chance in England. “To be honest, I don’t,” said Edu. “That’s the harsh part of this game sometimes. For whatever reason, coaches don’t see you in their plans and despite your efforts and showing well in training to never get a real opportunity in a game, it kind of sucks.”
Edu thinks that as an American abroad, you still have to do more. “I do feel like you’ve always got to prove yourself,” he said. “I think the image of American players has changed somewhat – slightly – in the sense that maybe they respect the national team more. But when you go to a club over there, it’s an uphill battle, to say the least. You’ve got to really, really show and prove yourself and sometimes that’s still not enough.”
“For me, I wasn’t going to wait around [at Stoke],” he continued. “I did enough waiting around. I worked my ass off and showed well for myself, was honest in training and always held myself to a high standard. My opportunity didn’t come and so in a World Cup year I wasn’t going to sit there. I needed to get out and get playing.”
In the dance of musical chairs, Edu has found himself a comfortable seat. He is playing, and he is playing well. He is better positioned for the World Cup. And if nothing else, that short-term priority seems to have righted his career for the long term as well.