CHESTER, Pa. – Maurice Edu is headed back to the midfield – and perhaps the US national team too.
But before any of that, the Philadelphia Union captain knows he just needs to get healthy.
In a wide-ranging interview with reporters from the team’s media day at Talen Energy Stadium on Thursday, Edu said he’s been in close contact with US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann over the past few months but that a sports hernia injury prevented him from being part of the current USMNT camp.
Edu, who had sports hernia surgery in mid-October, is still in recovery mode and hasn’t been a full participant of training since Philadelphia’s preseason camp opened Monday. But Union head coach Jim Curtin hopes Edu will be ready for the next phase of camp in Florida, at which point he’ll be slotted into the defensive midfield after spending most of the 2015 season at center back.
“For me, the biggest thing is getting fit, first and foremost,” said Edu, adding he would have been a part of January camp had he been fit. “From there, I just want the start the season off properly – not just for me personally but for the team. I want the team to be successful and win games. And I think in doing that, if I’m playing well, those opportunities will come. It’s obviously a goal and something I’m working toward, but my immediate focus is getting fit and helping this team – because I know through that it will lead to me getting back in the [US national team] picture.”
The 29-year-old Edu, who played a big role in the 2010 World Cup, has been mostly out of the USMNT picture since getting cut from Klinsmann’s preliminary 2014 World Cup roster. He knows it probably hasn’t helped that the Union haven’t been a winning team since he returned to MLS in 2014, going 20-29-19 over the past two years.
Edu started both of those two seasons in the midfield but ended up being moved to the backline to help sure up a defense that was leaking goals. This time around, though, Curtin hopes Edu will be able to stay in the defensive midfield and be the player that links the backline to the attack.
“We have the plan for him to play as the No. 6,” Curtin said Thursday. “He’s been a soldier for the club in terms of doing whatever the team needs. … He’s versatile. But the goal is to have him start as the No. 6 and for the pieces around him to be better than they’ve been in the past to get a fair assessment. We’ll see during the preseason. It’s something I’m confident in. I think the pieces we’ve added will sure some things up and get him the ball in spots and play to his skillset, which is to break plays up with the ball and move it on to the next guy.”
Curtin admitted the roster is not yet complete, but barring any other big midfield signings, Edu will likely play alongside Vincent Nogueira at the No. 8 and Tranquillo Barnetta at the No. 10 in Philly’s midfield triangle. That leaves Richie Marquez, who came into his own last season, to start at center back alongside either No. 2 overall draft pick Joshua Yaro or new Brazilian signing Anderson Conceição.
While that would be an inexperienced center-back pairing, Curtin likes the speed, dribbling and vision that both Yaro and Conceição possess. And Edu is ready to take on a leadership role to help those two players – and the many other youngsters on the team – progress and blend in with the veterans throughout camp.
“I think it’s important we make them feel a part of this group,” he said. “When you feel comfortable and you feel like you can be yourself is when you can play more freely and show what you’re really capable of. When we get down to Florida [on Tuesday], it’s going to be important to make sure this group is really integrated and everyone feels a part of this system and buys into what we’re trying to achieve this season.”
As excited as Edu will be to join everyone else on the training field down in Florida – and get back into the midfield, his preferred position – he knows there’s still plenty of time before the opener on March 6.
And Edu, who’s spent the first week being monitored by the club’s revamped sports performance department, plans to be ready for that.
“I think the biggest thing for me is trying to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “I don’t want to come back too quickly and have setbacks. I want to make sure when I do come back, I hit the ground running and don’t look back from there.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.