Throughout the 2017 Major League Soccer season, FC Yahoo had regular conversations with four well-known players. They spoke candidly about the swings of the long and grueling season and their hopes as the playoffs crept ever nearer. In the fourth installment, Maurice Edu, who the entire season as the Philadelphia Union’s absentee captain, out injured.
Date: March 6
Heading into the 2017 MLS season, the Philadelphia Union had not won a competitive match since August 2016. Maurice Edu had not played an MLS match since 2015. He missed the entire 2016 season, and with the long road to recovery from one long-term injury nearing an end, he suffered a fractured left fibula in training.
With the 2017 campaign up and running, Edu was hopeful both he and the team could return to the field, and to winning ways.
Edu: “We’ve made some good additions in the offseason. We’ve kept a good core group of guys. So my expectations this year are playoffs, for sure. And then a good run in the playoffs. And myself, coming back from injury, I’m looking forward to being a huge part of that. … I want to win MLS Cup. I’ve said that since the get-go, since I signed here. I want to be the first captain in this club’s history to lift a piece of hardware.
“Last season definitely was hard, in terms of watching, and as much as possible still trying to keep myself mentally in tune with what’s going on around the team, as well as mentally focused on my own situation, and trying to get back to health.”
But Edu still had no timetable for his return to the pitch.
“Last year, I played that game of setting timetables, and guesstimating with myself. We all kind of played that game of guesstimating what my return date was, and it kind of backfired on me. Because it was like mental torture. The date was closely approaching, and then when it came and went, it’s hard. It’s hard to handle that. So we’re taking it day by day. Obviously, the sooner the better. We all – myself more than anybody – would love to be on the pitch tomorrow, this weekend, if that was possible. So [I’m] trying to improve every day, trying to get stronger, and being able to put more stress on my legs, with the idea that I’m on the pitch as soon as possible.”
Is there even a rough timetable? Six months? Six weeks? Six days?
“I really don’t know. I’d lean toward … I don’t know.”
Date: May 5
The Union are still struggling. And Edu still doesn’t have a timetable for his return.
Edu: “I’m still rehabbing, still plugging away. I was able to get out on the field for a little bit this week – just to get out there, put my cleats on for a little bit. I wasn’t doing fitness work. It wasn’t like I was cleared to start running. The next step in my rehab was to get on the field and try to jog. So it’s still just baby steps.
“It’s a little bit of a roller-coaster ride. There’s some really positive moments, positive days. And there’s some days where we have to scale back things. I’m trying to push things, influence the physios to let me do more than maybe I should. But they’re being smart, they’re looking out for my well-being. Listen, this has been a 14-month injury up to this point, so what they’re doing is smart, being cautious, and not letting me be overly aggressive, which is what I want to do. Because at the end of the day, the thing no one wants is for me to suffer a major setback and be out for an even longer period of time.”
While focusing on rehab, though, Edu is still the club captain. He still has responsibility. He has to stay involved. He finds creative ways to do that. One of them:
“We have a fine system. Every week, we have a fine meeting. It ended up being something that’s really good for team bonding, and a little bit light-hearted. Obviously the fines are important, and important to hold people accountable. But the fine meeting itself is actually fun.
“I try to fine guys for everything. I fine guys for their outfits. If they came in and some of us thought what they wore was funny, that’s a fine. We have a committee, and you have a chance to argue your fine. We have a wheel, we call it the wheel of death, and you can spin the wheel if you want. There’s some things on there where there’s a benefit to spinning it, you might get to choose someone else to take your fine. Or your fine might end up being null and void. And then there’s also some where your fine is doubled, or different punishment.”
But more than anything, Edu just wants to be able to play soccer again.
“I’m at a point where I’m, like – anxious isn’t even the word anymore – I’m dying to get back on the field. With the team not doing well, that just adds to me wanting to be out there. It sucks. When you’re out, you feel kinda helpless.”
Date: August 14
Edu: “I’m getting closer. I’m probably the furthest along that I’ve been. I’m hoping to maybe play a game with the [Union USL affiliate Bethlehem] Steel this weekend … to get fitness, and sharpness, some match minutes under my belt. Because it has been a while. I was trying to [play with the Steel] this past weekend, but they wanted me to pass a series of tests first.
“To have been out as long as I have, every day is a headache. Any day that passes where you think you can do more than you [are], and you can’t, it definitely sucks. It may seem like not that big of a deal, but for me it definitely is. I was really trying to push for this past weekend, but unfortunately it wasn’t a reality. So now I’m just focused on trying to play this weekend, and go from there.”
Edu has seemingly reached the final stage of his recovery. But it’s a tricky stage. He essentially has to re-learn certain aspects of the game.
“First you have to do the rehab, and make sure that you can trust your body. When you first come back and you’re training, initially you might be hesitant to try things that normally you would do comfortably. You have to sort of re-teach yourself, and convince yourself, through repetition, to build up confidence that, yeah, you can do these movements. It’s not something that you should be overthinking, or worried about.
“For me, the challenging part was just getting over being concerned that I’m gonna do myself any more harm. So now, this part is kinda fun. It’s getting back to competing, being fearless to go into a challenge, or to take somebody one-on-one, to defend somebody one-on-one, to go for headers. Those things, again, when you’re healthy, you might take for granted because you do them so often without worry or concern. The first time you go into a tackle and you come out unscathed, you’re happy. Sometimes I’m oblivious to it, I get into that game mode, that’s when I just forget. Your mind sort of switches off and you forget that you’re injured. There’s been a couple times when the physios see me going for a challenge, and they’re kinda squeamish, worrying that I might come out of it on the wrong end. But I’ve bounced back, I’ve gotten up, and so far things have been good. So I’m hoping it continues in that way, and I can just start enjoying my soccer again.”
Date: September 19
Edu went 30 minutes in his first game back with the Steel. He went 45 minutes in his second one, and 75 in his third. But he picked up a minor quad injury that kept him out of training for a week.
Edu: “It’s annoying, because I’m trying to push myself, and do everything I can to get back. And sometimes in doing that, your body is being pushed to a level you haven’t experienced in a good while, so sometimes these annoying little mishaps happen.
Edu never did make it back. He missed the entire season for the second straight year. On Nov. 1, the Union would decline his contract option. If he returns to an MLS field next March, he’ll have gone two-and-a-half years in between games
“My spirits are still up. I’m still very positive and optimistic. But the reality of the situation … it’s been hell. My passion is playing soccer. That’s one of the things that brings me my most joy, that puts a smile on my face. And in years past, when other aspects of my life weren’t going well, or there was something I was dealing with, soccer was always an outlet for me to turn to. It was always a good way to escape from reality, in some way, and take my mind off of things. To now have that to be the cause of such – to have that be taken away, it has been hell … because I haven’t been playing. And that’s what I love to do.
“When you’ve been out this long, it helps you put things in perspective a little bit. This is my passion, this is my job, but, not just recently, over the course of my career, over the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen things that are a lot more drastic, and a lot more dire, than not being able to play soccer. As much as I’m in this situation and it’s not ideal, and it sucks, there’s plenty of time to just be with yourself and just think about things, and process things, and realize how grateful [I] should be for what soccer has given me. I’ve been fortunate. There’s a small selection of people who are lucky enough to do what they love for a living. And an even smaller amount of those people who get to play a sport for a living. So as much as I want to be upset, as much as I want to dwell on the negativity of the situation, I have to also look at it from a different perspective. Soccer has given me so much. It’s changed my life. It’s given me opportunity, and a way to provide for my family. So I keep these kinds of things in my mind, as opposed to dwelling on the obvious, which is another day that’s passed by that I’m not able to play. So that’s the way I try to train my mind, and keep me motivated, and keep me going.”
Yahoo Sports’ Henry Bushnell contributed to this story.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.