Nothing has ever been straightforward for Orlando City goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar.
"You always have a way you expect to see your life and your career is going to play out. Obviously, my route's been a little different."
The Lions homegrown keeper signed his first professional contract at the end of Orlando City's inaugural MLS season at just 17 years old, forgoing college and going straight to the pro rank.
His journey from that day in 2015 to now has been anything but conventional.
It took six years, 2,090 days, before Stajduhar made his debut for the MLS side, a memorable 3-2 win over Atlanta United in 2021.
Throughout those six years in between that time, the now 25-year-old goalkeeper was able to gain a lot of perspective on life, both on and off the field.
It began just as a young player's career normally would: learning from the veteran players ahead of him and the goalkeeper coaches working with him day after day to help him improve.
"I've definitely been able to forge my character over the last seven or eight years," he said. "The setbacks would just add fuel to the fire and keep me motivated. Now I just want to take it to the next level and really solidify myself in this league ."
That was the conventional part of his maturation.
The unconventional side came in the form of a career-threatening diagnosis at the end of 2017: cancer.
Mason was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer and began treatment in November of that year. He continued to get treatment into the 2018 preseason, where he would continue to train just hours after his chemotherapy sessions.
July 11 of 2018 marked a milestone for the young goalkeeper, the day he was cleared to play after going through his final treatment a few weeks before. It's a date he has forever tattooed on his left leg.
From that point, the real work began for Stajduhar. He had still not truly gotten his feet wet in the professional game and at 20 years of age, was hungry to do so. His first experience came in 2019, going on loan to the Tulsa Roughnecks (now FC Tulsa) of the USL Championship, starting 18 matches for the second-division club.
2020 was a bit of a wash due to the pandemic, but Mason still appeared in three matches for Orlando City B, playing at the time in USL League One. That marked the first time he put on his home club's jersey in a professional environment.
"The cancer and going through treatments was pretty tough," he said, "but the constant work with what felt like very little reward for so many years was tougher. So it's just a lot of patience, waiting, and adversity that was pretty frustrating in the moment. You just got to keep going and thankfully, I was rewarded on the other side of it."
July 30 of 2021 marked that reward for Stajduhar: his first-ever MLS start against Orlando's rivals Atlanta United.
It was the moment he had dreamed of. Walking out of the tunnel to a cheering Exploria Stadium, with his family and friends in attendance, taking his place in goal as the whistle blew. It was all surreal.
"I think there's a big aspect of being a goalkeeper, blocking all that out and just focusing on the moment, focusing on your preparation, making sure you're prepared as possible, physically, mentally, tactically, technically, everything," he said, "and I think that preparation aspect gives you peace going into the game, knowing that you've done everything and now it's just time to go rock out and do your thing."
Then Atlanta scored 46 seconds into the match off a shot outside the box.
Stajduhar wasn't phased. He went back to his pregame prep, picked the ball up, and threw it back to midfield, ready to restart the match and help get his team back in it.
It was by no means the dream debut for the keeper, but a late game-winner by Nani would help Mason get the ending he hoped for: three points at home against their rival.
It was, at the time, the most special moment he had at Exploria Stadium.
Flash forward a year later. Stajduhar had started in eight matches for the Lions across all competitions, with six coming in 2021 alone. He was finally finding his footing as Orlando's No. 2 keeper and was coming up with big performances in the process.
His ninth start came amidst the 2022 U.S. Open Cup run, with the Lions hosting the Philadelphia Union. As had been the past few months, his girlfriend Tatiana was in attendance.
Little did she know, however, there was something planned after the game that would become the most memorable moment for both her and Mason.
Flashback to when the two of them first met on a dating app just three months prior. Within the first few times the two of them went out, Stajduhar knew she was the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
"It was the way we connected emotionally was on a level that I'd never experienced before and I could just be myself around her," he said. "I've never been able to have conversations with anyone like her. She had the same emotional connection, and obviously, doesn't hurt that she's very beautiful. We share a lot in common, we do a lot of the same things and that brings us closer together as well. She's just an amazing woman."
Flash forward back to the U.S. Open Cup game against the Philadelphia Union. The game is heading into stoppage time with the Lions leading 2-1 and Stajduhar is doing all he can to help Orlando see out the match. With the last kick of the match, the Union got a shot on target, but Stajduhar managed to get his third save of the match, clinching the win for his hometown team.
As the elation of the moment sunk in, with all his teammates celebrating, his jubilation quickly turned back into nerves again. He was about to propose to his girlfriend.
"I wanted to do it at a game because I felt like I wanted to make it big, like I don't care who's watching, show the world I want her to be my wife. Sometimes my opportunities are kind of spread out. I didn't know that could have been my last game of the year. I had no idea. So I was like, I guess let's do it today."
So fresh off the 90 minutes he had just played, he had Tatiana come down on the pitch to celebrate, something that Mason thought would be a dead giveaway to his plans.
Usually you meet at the sideline, reach over the wall, whatever, but never on the field. So I thought like she knew for sure, but she was completely shocked. She had no idea."
It took a team effort to make it happen, with Adam Grinwis' wife Morgan assisting with the surprise and with Tatiana's mom and Mason's parents in the stands to witness, it became the perfect moment to pop the question.
"They all played it super well."
Eight months later, the two were getting married at a small ceremony in Okeechobee, just before the 2023 season.
"It was a beautiful day," Stajduhar said. "When she walked out through the doors and down the aisle, it was just like, 'holy crap, that's gonna be my wife!' She looked incredible and it was just a really special day and we were able to share our vows with each other and solidify our lifelong bond."
The wedding became very much a full-circle moment for Mason. On one hand in his career, he has had to be patient and bide his time for his opportunities on the pitch. But off it, life has taught him not to take things for granted and to live in the moment.
Through all that life has thrown at Mason Stajduhar, he has continued to make it his own, shaping his character into the person he is today, now with a very special woman alongside him every step of the way.