In the brief history of MLS, more No. 1 draft picks have flamed out than have panned out, but if ever a player seemed destined to brighten that dreary history, it was Maurice Edu.
So it proved to be.
He left the University of Maryland a year early to sign with MLS, and a year later, is not only the reigning Rookie of the Year but a U.S. international with three wins and three shutouts to his credit in his first three games in a U.S. jersey.
The central midfield slots are crowded - Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Ricardo Clark and Pablo Mastroeni are all in the mix - yet Edu has fans on both sides of the border pulling for him, after scoring four goals in 25 games for Toronto FC last year.
"I was fortunate to come to a team where I played a lot my first season, so I think that helped me a lot," says Edu, who unlike many of his teammates, mostly stayed healthy as TFC struggled to win six games.
"It forced me, especially playing center midfield, to take a lot of responsibility for the team and play better than maybe I expected going into it. It's a matter of timing."
That a rookie American would excel for a Canadian team in its own inaugural season is just one intriguing facet of the Edu story. Like 2006 No. 1 pick Marvell Wynne, Edu is tall, strong, fast and African-American. Unlike Wynne, whose father played Major League Baseball and at first scratched his head over his son's love for soccer, Edu grew up with the game.
"Everyone in my family plays sports," says Edu, born and raised in the Southern California city of Fontana. "We're a very athletic family. Both of my parents played soccer and couple of my sisters ran track and played basketball. We're a soccer family. If I didn't play soccer, they'd disown me."
After being drafted by New York, Wynne is now at Toronto FC and either lines up at right back or right mid as Edu mans the middle. TFC got Wynne in a trade. Trading Edu would be insane.
Rumors of a European move flared and flickered out during the winter, with Aston Villa - which played TFC in a friendly last summer - among the teams initiating contact, but head coach Mo Johnston knows he can't keep the graceful yet powerful 6-foot, 170-pound Edu forever even if he has yet to play a competitive match for the U.S.
"I think it's been a very productive year for myself," says Edu, who left Maryland after his junior year to sign with MLS as a Generation adidas player. "The most important part of this year isn't the accolades or things like that, it's that I've grown and developed as a player. I've tried to increase my wealth of knowledge about the game."
MIDFIELD MIX. Much of the sorting and shuffling U.S. coach Bob Bradley must do is with the abilities and characteristics of his central midfielders. Will they equally share offensive and defensive responsibilities? Will one primarily hold and the other push forward to prompt attacks? Which are best suited to a three-man midfield if a winger is added up front? Who can hold the ball under pressure, or play balls quickly to trigger attacks, or break up plays with tenacious tracking and tackling?
In his first two matches in Switzerland and South Africa last fall, Edu played in the middle alongside Michael Bradley, a rugged two-way player, with attack-minded Feilhaber on the right side and DaMarcus Beasley on the left. Against Sweden, Edu and Ricardo Clark formed a very different central partnership, with Clark's quickness and range balancing Edu's knack for getting the ball forward whenever possible. Landon Donovan often pushed up high on the right flank, leaving Edu, Clark and Brad Davis to handle midfield duties.
"His decision-making out of midfield and the timing of his runs, he's always looking forward," says U.S. defender Jimmy Conrad, who played against Edu in MLS last season. "It's something we need to address as a country. It's nice to have a defensive midfielder who's looking to play a little bit. [Cesc] Fabregas is a good example. He sits and holds but he also makes good, well-timed runs, and I think that impresses me most about Mo, his ability to pick his spots.
"He's young and he's still trying to feel his way and get comfortable in the system, but I think he's done a great job so far."
In none of the games did Edu flinch, and in the first two he set up the games' only goals.
Less than 90 seconds into his debut against Switzerland, he followed up a Feilhaber run and drilled a left-footed shot a yard wide of the post from about 25 yards. He lofted a perfect chip up the left wing for Beasley, and acrobatically volleyed a precise ball that Carlos Bocanegra redirected right to the goalkeeper. With four minutes left, Edu pounced on a loose ball to start the goalmouth scramble Bradley polished off by scoring from close range.
South Africa fell, 1-0, on a Steve Cherundolo goal set up by a slick ball Edu played right into his path.
"As far as the goal, there was room behind the South African defense so I saw the opportunity to make a run. Maurice Edu played a great ball in and we are able to expose them," said Cherundolo.
Aside from a few early balls played out to the flanks, Edu played more as a holding midfielder against Sweden and let Donovan run the attack. The two central midfielders he most admired and often watched in the English Premier League when Manchester United squared off against Arsenal gave him very high standards to achieve.
"I tried to pick up from guys like Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, guys who were dominant in that position," says Edu. "I tried to emulate parts of their game and add a little bit of my own personality to the game as well. Ultimately, you want to be a complete player, so I shoot for that and just try to be consistent."
TFC TURMOIL. Edu's consistency and durability provided some stability for Toronto, which used more than 30 field players in its expansion season. Seldom did Johnston have his ideal lineup healthy and available. Yet the raucous fans at BMO Field soon enough saw the talent and athleticism that prompted Johnston to take him with the No. 1 pick.
He scored in the franchise's inaugural win, a 3-1 defeat of Chicago, and ended the season with four goals. Only captain Jim Brennan and midfielder partner Carl Robinson played more minutes than Edu (2,180), whose energy and enthusiasm sometimes spurred him into committing fouls (65) or taking cards (six yellow, one red).
While coaching the former MetroStars, Johnston selected Wynne No. 1 in the 2006 SuperDraft and predicted he'd be Rookie of the Year. A year later with TFC, Johnston again had first dibs and this time both the pick and his prediction hit the mark.
"I might have gone into a situation where I didn't get much of a chance to play," says Edu, who missed the first two games while recovering from offseason pelvic surgery. "It's always a hard thing to come out as a rookie and do well. There's a lot of pressure on you being the No. 1 pick, but I think I was fortunate with the situation I landed in."
Johnston had laden his roster with experience honed overseas. Brennan, Robinson, Danny Dichio, Collin Samuel and Chris Pozniak brought talents honed in Europe to MLS. Perhaps he thought Edu could be a versatile fill-in while the rookie found his feet in the professional game.
"He's a good passer, he can play on the right, he can play in the middle, he can play on the left, whatever you tell him," said Johnston after taking him as the first pick. "He could play right back. He can play soccer and he's a clever kid. He has that No. 1 target on his back and he'll handle that easily."
TFC's ever-changing lineups seldom featured the same 11 players but once he recovered from the surgery, Edu usually claimed a central midfield spot and quickly drew notice for his decisive tackling and offensive instincts. A wild, flying body-block of Houston's Brian Mullan earned him a red card in mid-July, yet that high foul count is more a product of inexperience than indiscipline or ineptitude.
"What I noticed in the camp is that he's very light on his feet, he's intelligent, he understands what it's going to take earn a place," said former Fire head coach Dave Sarachan, who helped Bob Bradley prepare the U.S. team to face Sweden. "I thought he had a very good camp and he's on the right track. He's got some subtlety to him."
LATE BLOOMER. That subtlety and his rather late maturity physically may be why his first appearance for his country came against Switzerland. Never was Edu invited to the U-17 residency in Bradenton, or called into a U-20 training camp.
"I like to look at it as a small victory for college soccer," says Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski, who first saw Edu as a teen - "about 5-foot-8, maybe 135 pounds" -- playing club ball for Pateadores and head coach Mike Gartlan. "Here's a kid who never played on any youth national team. That's a Jonathan Bornstein-type story.
"He was kind of a smaller kid who grew and developed. He was a very good two-way player but was looked at more as a wide midfielder or attacking midfielder. His father had a heart attack the summer before his senior [high school] season, and in the recruiting process Mo was fairly unresponsive. I think his focus at that point was family and his father. He didn't want to be rushed into a decision.
"The first thing you notice about Maurice is he looks you straight in the eye. He can recognize the substance of the information. He's a very sharp, shrewd kid, and yet he's very, very humble."
That focus and humility played well in the TFC locker room and on the training field. Experienced pros like Robinson quickly acknowledged his talent and attitude. Edu listened and learned and honed his game. He lost more games (17) in that one season than he had in three years with the Terrapins, which won the 2005 national title and compiled a record of 52-15-7 while he was there.
"I learned a lot from Carl Robinson," says Edu of the English League veteran he often played alongside in the middle. "He's got a lot of knowledge and experience in the game. He's constantly coaching me on and off the pitch, giving me little pointers, helping me grow and helping me reach the next level.
"At the beginning of last season I had goals and one of those goals was being called to the national team. But I never thought it would happen so soon. I thought maybe I get called to the 23s and hopefully do well there, and that might lead to a call-up. But I was lucky enough to get called into camp for the Switzerland game.
"Going into next season I'm definitely looking to score more goals but also get more assists: I only had one this past season. I'm definitely happy about how the year went for me. I want to continue that and enjoy some more success this season."
(This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)