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Maurice Edu eyes career restart after high-profile move to Philadelphia Union

In anticipation of opening weekend in Major League Soccer, MLSsoccer.com will profile five of the biggest names in the league heading into the 2014 season. Continuing the series is editor Andrew Wiebe, who takes a look at the return of onetime Rookie of the Year Maurice Edu to MLS after a European adventure.

With the World Cup on the horizon, Edu found his career stalling in Europe before heading back to MLS in a bid to be among Jurgen Klinsmann's 23-man roster this summer and is set to make his Philadelphia Union debut on Saturday at Portland (10:30 pm ET, MLS Live).


ORLANDO, Fla. – Maurice Edu wasn’t willing to waste another day. Not with his World Cup chances slowly rotting away with each passing game.

Nearly 17 months after completing what was, at the time, a “dream” move to Stoke City, Edu was a professional soccer player who didn’t actually play, a 2012 substitute debut the only appearance he had to show for his stretch in the West Midlands.

While fellow American Geoff Cameron cemented a place in the lineup, Edu hadn’t even dressed under new manager Mark Hughes. For the time being, his English Premier League career appeared to be over unless he was content to be just another face at the training ground.

“When you’re in this profession,” Edu told MLSsoccer.com last week, “it doesn’t make sense if you’re not playing.”

Maurice Edu in one of his rare appearances on the Stoke City bench. Edu dressed just four times and made one substitute appearance after signing in August 2012.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

So when January came around, Edu reviewed his options. Turkey, where the 27-year-old had enjoyed a successful loan stint with Bursaspor during the spring of 2013, was in play. So was a drop down the ladder into the English Championship.

But Edu wasn’t just looking for his next stop. He was looking for the right fit, and an opportunity to get back onto Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup radar. As luck would have it, nearly 3,500 miles away, two men who knew him well held the keys to his future.

The Philadelphia Union needed a box-to-box midfielder, and after a more than a year freeing up cap space and planning, head coach John Hackworth and technical director Rob Vartughian finally had the funds to land the man they’d coached with the US national team and at the University of Maryland.

It wouldn’t be easy – and it certainly wouldn’t be cheap – but Hackworth and Vartughian plowed ahead, their sales pitch revolving around Edu’s desire to catch Klinsmann’s eye in the buildup to Brazil. If he excelled in the same sphere as Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, they argued, the US boss would have to take notice.

“It’s going to be apples to apples more so than if you were playing in the Championship in England or Turkey somewhere,” Hackworth told Edu. “We can give you that opportunity to go from not playing at Stoke to ‘Mo, you’re going to be our man.’”

Starved for opportunity, Edu didn’t have to take Hackworth or Vartughian’s word when it came to how his club situation affected his international future. More importantly, he didn’t have to worry about ulterior motives or false promises.

“When you talk to people [in this business], sometimes you can be fed a lot of [expletive],” Edu said. “They just want to sell you on a situation, but I didn’t get that impression at all.”

A month later, signed on loan as a Designated Player with a purchase option looming at the end of 2014, Edu is three days away from making his Union debut against the Portland Timbers. In the end, with complicated negotiations complete and both side’s most-pressing need met, the move “feels natural.”

The only thing remaining is how exactly it all plays out in the months ahead – for both player and club.

“He could have gone to a lot of other places,” Hackworth said. “Mo had to choose Philadelphia just like we had to choose him.”

***

Before he arrived at Maryland. Before he won a national championship and became the undisputed No. 1-overall pick in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft. Before he was MLS Rookie of the Year. Before all that, Europe was calling.

Edu was a lanky teenager in Fontana, UCLA’s backyard in Southern California, when Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski and Vartughian, his assistant at the time, spotted the midfielder with a silky touch and effortless gait.

Edu was a central participant in one of the world's most-heated rivalries: The Old Firm derby between Rangers and Celtic in Glasgow. He scored a stoppage-time winner in a 1-0 triumph in Feb. 2010.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

Busy mining Southern California for the talent that would eventually deliver the Terps their first national title, the duo set about luring the son of a pair of teachers to College Park. It wasn’t easy – his recruitment was interrupted by a long lull brought on by his father’s stroke during his senior year – but Edu eventually signed with an eye toward the future.

“I remember vividly asking Maurice, ‘Where do you see yourself five or 10 years from now?’” Cirovski recalled. “He said, ‘I want to play in Europe.’ I said, ‘Maryland is halfway to Europe from Fontana.’”

Less than five years later, a year-and-a-half with Toronto FC and standout performances at the Beijing Olympics fueling international interest, Edu seemed prophetic. He was on his way to Glasgow after Scottish giants Rangers FC paid more than $4 million for his rights to go along with a lucrative five-year deal.

It wasn’t always smooth – injuries disrupted his first two seasons and an incident involving racial abuse from his own fans put him in the headlines – but Edu endured at Ibrox. And then he thrived.

By the time he left for the EPL in the summer of 2012, Edu had won two league championships, made more than 100 appearances and scored 12 goals, played against Manchester United in the Champions League and, perhaps most importantly in the minds of Rangers fans, scored a memorable Old Firm winner against Celtic.

He’d played in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and made it in Europe as an American. And he’d learned a valuable lesson along the way.

“I think confidence is necessary, especially in this profession,” Edu said. “At the end of the day, when things are against you, if you don’t have that self-belief and self-confidence, sometimes when your back’s against the wall it makes it that much more difficult.”

Little did he know that his back would be increasingly against the wall as his career slowly stalled over the next year and a half at Stoke City.

All Edu had to show for his first six months under then-manager Tony Pulis was a lone substitute appearance. The spring brought a short-term loan to Bursaspor, a move that kept him in the US team as Klinsmann’s squad navigated the first legs of the Hexagonal. Momentum, it seemed, was shifting back in his direction.

Edu has 48 caps with the US national team, but was robbed of a vintage moment at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when his goal against Slovenia was waved off by referee Koman Coulibaly.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

But hernia surgery kept Edu out of the summer’s World Cup qualifiers and ruled out a spot on the Gold Cup roster. And then it stunted his second chance at Stoke under Hughes, delaying his return until after the season was already in full swing.

Fully recovered, Edu threw himself into training, hoping an extended run of form and a few impressive reserve performances would prompt his new boss to include him in the squad. From there, perhaps a substitute appearance or Cup start would lead to a place in the gameday lineup. And he waited. And waited.

“At times,” Edu said, “I couldn’t see that light at the end of the tunnel.”

And with the light flickering, he felt his passion for the game slowly begin to wane. Diversions – piano and voice lessons, for example – helped keep Edu’s mood from becoming forebodingly dark, but it was clear he’d have to escape in January to revive his international and club career.  

“I wanted to be able do all the things that make me passionate about this game, the reasons why I love this game. I feel like at times when I was [at Stoke] I lost that enjoyment,” Edu said. “I wasn’t having fun. I know it’s a job, but at the same time, like many in this industry, I’m fortunate because it’s what I love to do. In most cases, it doesn’t feel like a job. When I was there, it kind of felt like a job.”

A month after another fresh start, Edu meanders through the lobby of the Union’s preseason hotel in suburban Orlando, a smile plastered on his face. He’d been the face of the club the week before in New York City, running through the media gauntlet gregariously, then going right into Philadelphia’s starting lineup in Florida.

For the next 10 months, at least, his soccer purgatory appears over, and Edu’s mood reflected that state of professional salvation.

“What we’ve seen out of him is a guy with a smile on his face, a guy who’s enjoying the game again,” Vartughian said. “That’s so important because, at the end of the day, none of us can be really great at anything if we’re not happy with what we’re doing. I think he’s in a good place.”

***

Four points. That’s all the separated the Union from the playoffs in 2013, all that separated them from the veneer of MLS success and failure.

Hackworth hopes Edu can help make up that difference. A quick glance at last season’s playoff field reveals an overriding truth: Good MLS teams have a dominant box-to-box midfield presence.

Edu is no stranger to hardware. He won mulitple trophies while at Rangers and was also a member of the University of Maryland's 2005 national championship team.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

Kyle Beckerman in Salt Lake. Will Johnson in Portland. Marcelo Sarvas in Los Angeles. Osvaldo Alonso in Seattle. Dax McCarty in New York. And now, Philly hope, Edu will join that list.

“The good teams in this league, for the most part, have a guy who [go box to box]. They have a guy who can do all the work in the midfield but also pop up occasionally in a position to surprise and unbalance you,” Hackworth said. “Mo has the range, the skillset to do that. He gives us a little more freedom to take some risks creatively. We’re going to put a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.”

But he won’t be the only one with weight to bear after an offseason in which Hackworth sunk seven figures in the midfield. Vincent Nogueira, an import from Ligue 1, and Cristian Maidana, an Argentine attacker with a European pedigree, will be expected to help shoulder some of the load as well.

Still, expectations are high. As former Rangers and USMNT teammate Carlos Bocanegra contends – and Hackworth and Vartughian danced around – no one is more important to Philly’s success than Edu.

“I think instantly, with him in the lineup, it’s going to rocket them into a playoff team and a legitimate contender,” Bocanegra said.

Truthfully, Edu won’t be satisfied if it goes down any other way. He raised his share of trophies with Rangers and Maryland, but he’s never been part of an MLS playoff team. Come November, the expectation is that will no longer be the case.

Edu battles for the ball during a preseason friendly against the Montreal Impact in Orlando, Fla. He is expected to slot into the Union midfield next to captain Brian Carroll.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

“That’s what I came here to do. I want to succeed in every aspect of my life, and this is no different,” Edu said. “If you were to talk to everyone involved in the club, not just the players, that’s [the playoffs are] what’s expected of this team. We have good enough players and a good enough team to achieve that, but it’s one thing to say it and another to go out and do it.”

Same goes for his plan to break back into the national team ahead of Brazil. He’s only got three months to do it, but in typical fashion, Edu’s self-belief hasn’t wavered. He expects to be on a plane to Sao Paolo come June 8.

“That’s the plan. That’s what I’ve been working toward the past four years,” he said. “My goal, my aim and where I see myself hasn’t changed.”

Whether he sees himself in Philly past 2014 remains to be seen, although the club’s long-term plan certainly includes the 27-year-old. For now, Edu’s only focused on the next step, the next training session, the light at the end of the tunnel.

“You need to crawl before you walk,” he said.