CHESTER, Pa. — Maurice Edu is back to playing live game minutes for a professional soccer team.
It’s just not the Union.
And when the Union captain will return to MLS play remains up in the air, even after he made a 30-minute rehab appearance with USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC on Sunday.
During his weekly press conference, head coach Jim Curtin said that Edu won’t make his 2016 MLS debut Saturday when the Union host Montreal on Saturday, and that the trip to Portland the following week also looks iffy.
“We’re not going to rush him back now and instantly put him with the first team,” Curtin said. “That’s the first 30 minutes that he’s played now in almost eight or nine months so we want to be smart with how we handle that. He’s a great player, he’s an important part of this thing, but we don’t want it to be something where we throw him back out and, God forbid, someone goes down early with an injury and I’m forced to throw Mo out there before it makes sense. So we will manage it in an intelligent way.
“But Mo is a big part of this team and we want him to play a role down the stretch.”
Out since the start of the 2016 season with a stress fracture in his right leg, Edu has naturally been disappointed he hasn’t been able to help the team, especially with the Union closing in on their first playoff berth in five years.
The captain returned to practice nearly two months ago but has been dealing with pain while trying to raise his fitness back up. Playing 30 minutes Sunday for the Bethlehem Steel was an important first step to alleviating both of those issues.
“It was good,” Edu told reporters. “It has been a long time. It was nice to be out on the pitch again, putting myself in unpredictable situations, getting touches on the ball in tight spaces. Obviously I felt a little rusty, and I know that’ll come, so I’m not too worried about that. But it was a good test to see where my leg’s at in terms of going into tackles, going into challenges, reacting to different plays, having to cut, turn — all those awkward, unpredictable moves you have to do during a game. To get 30 minutes is also a test of my fitness.”
Before the game in Bethlehem began, Curtin said he told Edu that he didn’t care how he played and that he wanted his captain to mainly focus on not only building his stamina back up but also his confidence.
“It’s been so long that training is one thing, and he’s shown that he can go through the training moments no problem,” the Union coach said. “I just wanted him to be on the field. I was not concerned with technically how he played and his decisions on the ball. I was most concerned with just the act of him walking out there with 11 guys, with a crowd, in a pro game. So from that standpoint, he passed all the things that I wanted out of the first game.
“Now, as we start to move to the next one, we want a little more.”
What “a little more” entails, according to Curtin, is developing more sharpness with the ball, starting the attack from the defensive midfield and meshing with his teammates.
The latter part of the equation should not be as difficult as it might be for another player making his season debut with only a few games left in the season. That’s because Edu has been with the group the whole year, still acting as the captain and still laughing with the guys before and after practices.
He’s also played with many of them over the last two seasons and has been friends with newcomers like Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies for a very long time.
Still, it’s been hard not be on the field with them during games.
“As an athlete, the worst part of the game is being injured and having to watch from the sidelines knowing there’s nothing you can do to contribute on the field,” Edu said. “You can talk to guys off the pitch and try to be there for team morale and give support from that standpoint. But not being able to contribute on the field, it sucks. Being a captain of the team, it sucks having to watch. Every day that it gets closer and closer to me being on the pitch with the team, it’s obviously exciting and something I’m going to continue to work towards.”
Edu will likely make at least one more appearance for the Steel before giving it a go in MLS. Of course, with just six games left in the regular season, Edu may end up playing in only three or four contests before the playoffs. And it may also be in a reserve capacity.
But even though an entire season of Edu’s career has been nearly wiped out, Curtin insists that the 30-year-old midfielder has taken it all in stride and is ready to make an impact before next year, however small.
“You know when you’re injured, it’s a lonely feeling,” Curtin said. “You have a lot of people that are giving you advice on how to handle it and different things and, at the end of the day, you’re the only one who knows exactly where you’re at, and where your body is. … He has a real positive outlook. It can be hard; I think there were some down days during the course of the whole process. But right now, I’d say he’s in good spirits and anxious to get back out on the field.”