Sidelined for the summer by a knee injury, U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu has some time to reflect on a wild ride that has taken him from college soccer to the U.S. national team and Scotland in less than three years.
In his career as a soccer player, he's flown thousands of miles to locations as exotic as South Africa, China, Switzerland and Cuba, yet Maurice Edu rates a bus ride as one of the most memorable experiences of his life.
In Scotland, teams travel to road matches by bus — a luxury coach with plasma TVs, it must be said — and such was the mode of transportation that took Glasgow Rangers home May 24 after a 3-0 thumping of Dundee United at Tannadice Park had clinched its first league title in four years. One of the goals came from a free kick won by Edu when he was fouled just outside the penalty area.
As thrilling as it was to play the full 90 minutes, secure the precious victory, lift the trophy bedecked with the team colors in ribbons of red and blue, and spray champagne during a private post-match celebration, during the bus ride back to Glasgow he recognized the magnitude and importance of his accomplishment for a club whose fan clubs around the world number more than 800.
"A lot of the players were really emotional," says Edu, who at the time didn't realize a knee injury he'd suffered during the match would require surgery and sideline him for the summer. "Obviously, it meant a lot to me, but some of the players and the fans have supported Rangers their whole lives. It's what they live for. To finally be able to say they're champions and hold up their medals and the trophy was great.
"On the way to Ibrox, our stadium, the streets were lined with fans, and as we got into the stadium, there were 30,000 or 35,000 fans in the seats, five or six hours after the game, waiting to celebrate with us. That just showed me how big this club is and how deep everything is for them. You can be told about Rangers being a massive club and how the support is tremendous, both here and abroad, and blah, blah, blah. But to actually feel it and see how much it mattered to everyone there was a great experience.
"If you were on the bus and looked around, face to face to face, even the guys who have just joined the club knew what it meant."
'WHIRLWIND.'Edu had joined Rangers the previous August in a $5 million transfer just a few days after playing for the USA at the 2008 Olympic Games — and less than one and a half seasons after making his rookie debut in MLS for Toronto FC.
He'd left Maryland to turn pro after his junior year with the 2005 NCAA Division I championship and all-America honors to his credit, and racked up another award as the league's best rookie in 2007. With only 38 pro games and seven appearances at the senior level on his resume, Edu's career had accelerated at a dizzying pace, yet after joining Rangers, for months he languished on the bench.
Still, Mo Johnston, a veteran of Scottish League play for both Celtic and Rangers and Edu's former coach in Toronto, insists the timing of the move made sense.
"These young players who go over to Europe benefit themselves as well as the national team," says Johnston, who also coached Michael Bradley for a season before he left the MetroStars for Dutch club Heerenveen. "He comes out of college and is Rookie of the Year for us, then he gets called into the national team and plays in the Olympics, and then he gets a chance to go to Rangers. It took him some time to adjust and to get into the team, but everybody needs time to adjust.
"This is what our players need to develop once they get into the national team, to go to Europe and play for those clubs at the highest level. Look at how far Michael Bradley has come since he left MLS. You see players you used to coach going overseas and doing well for their clubs and for the national team. I like that."
Says Edu, "There's just been a whirlwind of things happening."
But soon the whirlwind died down.
Edu played just twice for Rangers before Christmas, getting 65 minutes in a 2-1 league victory over Kilmarnock in September and playing all 90 minutes as Rangers beat Hamilton by the same score in the League Cup Oct. 28. As the harsh Scottish winter approached and the days turned shorter and greyer and wetter, Edu worked hard in training and waited for his next chance from manager Walter Smith. And waited.
"In my case, it was good, because the manager was always communicating with me as were the coaches. I was in the loop," Edu says. "Even then it was hard, because you want to play games. As a pro, that's what you do and that's what you love to do. I just tried to remain confident and wait for my turn."
He kept in touch with friends and family back in the United States, spent as much time as he could exploring the city on his own or with U.S. and Rangers teammate DaMarcus Beasley, and consulted with another American who'd gone through much the same thing, Hammarby IF striker Charlie Davies.
After leaving college to sign with Hammarby in 2007, Davies played little until getting a start and hitting a hat trick in the final game of the season. In 2008, he finished among the league's top scorers with 15 goals.
"Mo is at Rangers and he's having a tough time," said Davies last December while savoring his second season in Sweden. "He was playing all the time in Toronto and was a big-time player. Now he has Barry Ferguson and Pedro Mendes playing in front of him, and that's the captain and one of the coach's favorite players.
"He has to wait for his chance. He's frustrated about not playing, but the first year is always the toughest and eventually you just keep working hard in training and everything falls into place. It's never easy."
Injuries, suspensions and international callups often provide opportunities for backups to get into the first team, and so it transpired for Edu, yet only by extraordinary events during the FIFA international fixture dates in early spring.
BAD BHOYS.Ferguson, also a Scottish international in addition to Rangers' captain, and goalie Allan MacGregor stayed up all night drinking and carousing at the Scotland team hotel after a match in the Netherlands. While consigned to the bench a few days later – April Fool's Day, appropriately enough — as their teammates played against Iceland at Hampden Park, they were seen flipping "V" signs to Scottish fans heckling them.
The gesture, roughly the equivalent of flashing a middle finger, sparked such outrage that the Scottish Football Association banned the pair from the national team and Rangers suspended the players for two weeks. Edu took Ferguson's spot in the starting lineup for a league match at St. Mirren, and headed home the winning goal from a Mendes corner kick in a 2-1 victory.
Two weeks later, Edu ranged up from his central midfield position and scored the winning goal again in a 3-2 win at Hibernian. He kept his spot in the lineup, though Smith reinstated Ferguson for the last three games, including the Scottish Cup final Edu missed because of his knee injury. Rangers went unbeaten in its last 10 league games, including a 1-0 defeat of Celtic at Ibrox Park May 9, to wrest the title away from its city rivals.
"The past [three] years Celtic had won the league," says Edu. "Rangers have won a few domestic cups but the league trophy is what everyone shoots for and what everyone wants to win. To have it come back was amazing."
Edu lives near Beasley in west Glasgow, a city deeply divided by tradition and religion as well as its two powerful soccer clubs but more or less open to everyone. When the Old Firm clubs play each other at Ibrox or Celtic Park, policemen in riot gear are everywhere, but on most days members of disparate factions can meet anywhere, at any time.
"Being in the city is a lot different if you play for Rangers or Celtic," says Edu, who felt right away how sharply his life had changed. "Half the people love you and half the people absolutely hate you with a passion. In Toronto, everyone was united, behind the team. The whole city really embraced us and everyone wanted us to do well.
"You might be wandering around the city and you run into Rangers fans who want to shake your hand and take their pictures with you. But there's also the Celtic fans who heckle you and give you all kinds of abuse, so you just have to handle those situations as well as possible and just be smart about everything, be aware of your surroundings.
"It's a lot different than being in America. I've tried to explain it a few times to people and I really can't."
Despite his role in Rangers' strong finish, Edu played only 16 league and cup games, and faces an uncertain future. Movement of players is always a hot topic, there are rumors Smith might be leaving, and since he'll miss the start of preseason training as well as the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup while rehabbing his injury, it's impossible to know what Edu's status will be come September.
He will spend a few weeks at home in Southern California to visit friends and family, and return to Glasgow in mid-July to continue rehab. He should be fine physically with the ligament damage in his left knee repaired, and he's certainly grown psychologically.
"Any thoughts that maybe you can get of this game with a tie and get a win the next game go right out the window," he says. "That's unacceptable because of the history of this club.
"As much as Rangers and Celtic get up for games against each other and games in the Champions' League, you can't take Hearts or Aberdeen or even St. Mirren lightly because those games are their cup finals. Our last nine or 10 games every game was a battle. You could tell each point meant something to both teams. Every game had some significance and it was great. You love to play in those games where it's important."
This enforced break, while frustrating, has given him some time to take stock of where he's been and what he's accomplished in a very short time. "This injury has kind of opened my eyes," he says. "It's been such a quick transition.
"I'm in situation where I can do what I love for a living. I can't complain too much, because this injury is just a minor setback along a path that has been positive and really good for me so far.
(This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)