There was no missing the tone of annoyance in Maurice Edu’s voice as he reflected upon his long-awaited return to competitive soccer.
“Obviously I’m happy, because this year has been hell,” he said after practicing with the Union on Tuesday. “But the real excitement will be when I walk out on the pitch with the first team. So, baby steps in a longer process than maybe I anticipated.”
It’s been a longer process than anyone has anticipated: nearly 23 months since his last Union game, and even longer than that since he was truly healthy. He has suffered three significant injuries since the summer of 2015: a partially torn groin muscle, a stress fracture in his left leg and a broken left fibula.
But Edu’s spirits are still intact, and he intends to keep them that way.
“When you’re put in situations that are unexpected, it brings out parts of you that you maybe didn’t even know you had,” he said. “I feel like I’ve always been mentally strong, but this has definitely challenged me in ways that are slightly different, because in other scenarios there’s things that I can control. … In this scenario, I haven’t had that luxury, so I’ve kind of had to play a waiting game, and just be patient and be smart, and obviously also be smart with the thoughts I have in my head and the way I channel my energy.”
Now that he is back on the field, it’s easier to have a clear head. At least when it comes to thinking about himself.
“It doesn’t make sense to dwell on things that have happened in the past, or focus on that, because it takes energy that I need to put in to other things,” Edu said. “So I’m just focused on what’s happening here and now for me, focusing on just conquering every challenge that’s put in front of me every day. Today, that challenge was just getting through training and making sure I showed well for myself, [that] I got the work out of it that I needed, and added to my fitness level for the next game.”
Edu is still focused on what he called “all the little, small things you take for granted.” But he left no doubt that he knows how far he still has to go.
“At the end of the day, my focus and my goal is to play with the first team,” he said. “It’s not to be content to just be back fit or be back training or be back playing with Steel. These are all steps along the way to get to the bigger picture.”
Union manager Jim Curtin offered sympathies Tuesday, but also a healthy dose of pragmatism. The team’s depth chart is stacked with central midfielders, and even if Edu gets back to a point where he can play in MLS, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya aren’t going anywhere. Nor is Derrick Jones, the 21-year-old academy product who is the first name called from the bench.
“He has to work his way back to 90 minutes of fitness, which is hard for a guy who has now missed, almost, going on two seasons’ worth of games now,” Curtin said. “It’s great for him to get that first 30 minutes under his belt, connect his passes, gain confidence that he can do it again, which is powerful in itself. Now he has to work his way to start for 90 minutes for Steel, and from there, then we can start talking about being in the 18 for us.”
Curtin said “it’s been the hope for a long time now” that Edu would return to the field, especially since the 31-year-old is one of the Union’s two Designated Players. Curtin also said that Edu “wants to be on the team moving forward, and he wants to be on the field moving forward.”
But Edu’s contract — the Union’s second-largest at $818,750 — expires at the end of the year. For as great a story as it would be if he’s able to return to the field by the end of the season, the odds of him staying in Philadelphia beyond that seem increasingly slim.