ORLANDO – Between treatments of chemotherapy for six months, dreaming of nights like Tuesday helped keep Mason Stajduhar strong.
Alongside his family, girlfriend and friends, the idea of returning to the soccer field and excelling kept him going. His career was put in peril after being diagnosed with Localized Ewing Sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in 2017. Soccer is why he opted for the riskier path of chemotherapy rather than surgery, all to avoid knee reconstruction. He kept fighting, and even continued to attend training sessions amid the treatment.
Now, after completing chemotherapy and successfully battling cancer, Stajduhar is back to focusing solely on soccer.
After featuring on loan with the USL Championship's Tulsa Roughnecks this spring for his professional debut, Stajduhar will pass another milestone on Tuesday. He'll represent the MLS Homegrown team against Chivas in front of the Orlando City SC faithful.
"A year ago today, I was probably just starting to get full breath back, blood count coming back to normal," the 21-year-old told MLSsoccer.com after training on Sunday. "A lot to imagine I’d be here today. It means a lot. It’s a great opportunity to represent my club and the city of Orlando. I’m super stoked about it.”
After six months of driving to chemo, then training with Orlando and heading back to chemo at night, Stajduhar's days are a little less hectic.
“It’s incredible. I’ve been able to focus solely on soccer and not worry about treatment or anything like that," Stajduhar said. "All clear now, so that’s a burden lifted. I’m glad it’s just soccer now.”
The process prompted much self-reflection.
Stajduhar learned a lot about the man in the mirror, and he found a deeper reservoir of patience and perseverance than he may have recognized prior to his diagnosis.
“Mentally, a lot of tough times going through cancer, all the treatments," Stajduhar said. "Sticking with that and staying patient through that, seeing it out through the end through all the treatments, made me mentally tougher. It made me appreciate the game more.”
Alongside some of the league's fellow top academy-produced talents, Stajduhar serves as an inspiration.
“It’s a crazy story," Homegrown teammate Brandon Servania, an FC Dallas midfielder, said. "It gives everyone hope. Even for me, I wasn’t playing earlier this season – that’s nothing compared to his story. Seeing that and everything he’s been through, to be on the same stage, it’s amazing.
“He shows that he’s a fighter; a lot of us fight in our different ways," Edwin Cerrillo, also of FC Dallas, added. "Just to know that he stuck through it and he’s going to get through whatever obstacle may be, it shows that no matter what’s in your way, you can overcome it.”
On loan at Tulsa, Stajduhar is getting much-needed game-time. He was signed as a Homegrown player by Orlando ahead of the 2016 season and has yet to make his MLS debut. With what he referred to as "the whole cancer thing behind me," Stajduhar is full-speed ahead on his career.
“I'm looking forward to the future and opportunities," Stajduhar said. "To think about soccer definitely motivated me through the whole treatment process. Being able to look forward to things like this, just getting back on the field.”
Tuesday is bound to be another special night.