When Earl Edwards, Jr. went out to the pitch on Saturday, he walked with a different group.
Instead of walking out with the substitutes, he walked out with the starting XI as Orlando City’s starting goalkeeper for the first time at Orlando City Stadium. For Edwards, that moment had been three years in the making.
“For me I feel like it’s been a long time coming,” Edwards said Tuesday. “I got my MLS debut by default with Joe [Bendik] getting a concussion. I feel from my perspective to really earn the right and to be given that opportunity from a head coach has been very rewarding.”
Edwards was selected by the Lions in the third round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. Since then, he has watched and learned, soaking up every bit of knowledge he could from those before him, the likes of Bendik, Donovan Ricketts and Tally Hall. While many would let their mentality waiver during the waiting game, Edwards used it as a chance to grow.
“It’s just a constant mental grind but it starts in training every day, every drill, every rep, trying to be as focused as possible, trying to replicate that ‘this could be your shot, this could be your chance,” Edwards said. “It’s more of a mental strength type thing so when your chance does come it doesn’t come as a surprise.”
On Saturday, opportunity came knocking. Prior to warmups, Head Coach James O’Connor informed him that he would be starting in goal for the first time this season in league play. Edwards seized the moment, registering three saves on the night in his first career MLS victory.
Edwards has served as the primary backup for the Club since its move to MLS and -- aside from some U.S. Open Cup games -- has been Bendik’s backup since 2016. The two have an equally competitive and supportive relationship, which was evident when Edwards came off the field on Saturday.
“You could see him running over to me as soon as the first half ended, first one to get to me at the end of the game. Just a ton of support, great leader on this team and had my back the whole way through.” Edwards said.
High quality goalkeeping is no rarity around this Club and having two highly talented goalkeepers is a problem any coach would welcome.
“We’re fortunate in that we’ve got two excellent goalkeepers. Joe was exactly how I expect him to be and credit to Earl, I thought he made a really big save second half, which was great. Well played from Earl and equally great from Joe, as we’d expect him to be very professional.” O’Connor said.
O’Connor has reiterated from Day 1 that any player could be called on any given day. He proved that on Saturday by starting Edwards in goal. From there, Edwards seized the opportunity.
“He tells me to always be prepared and I never know when it’s going to come,” Edwards said. “It was one of those things where coming into the stadium I knew it was a possibility I could be starting so I just took it in stride. It was something I’ve been prepared for and I don’t think I could’ve been more prepared for that game. I took the opportunity in stride.”