TORONTO – With the majority of the squad who reached MLS Cup last season in place for Toronto FC it was going to take something, or someone, special to crack into the starting eleven.
His name is Raheem Edwards.
The 21-year old Mississauga native, a suburb of Toronto, has earned rave reviews for his energetic, dynamic attacking play up the left-touchline this season.
Through nine appearances, he has amassed four assists, including two in a 12-minute cameo last week against Columbus Crew SC, both converted by Tosaint Ricketts, that helped turned the tide, converting a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory.
MLSsoccer.com caught up with Edwards on Tuesday after training to better get to know the latest Toronto Academy product.
All that and he's still just learning
It may come as a surprise, but Edwards' impressive contribution this season has been from a relatively unnatural position: left wingback.
For TFC II he functioned more as a second striker or wide midfielder, though he considers himself a winger naturally, so come preseason, he was challenged by Greg Vanney to adapt to the new role.
“I wanted to see a few things from him,” said Vanney in March upon signing Edwards to the first team. “Sometimes attacking players disengage from the game for a few seconds. We can't have that, especially at wingback where at times you have to be a defender. We can't have you in la-la-land when the ball is on the opposite side of the field.”
Following a tough start in the Los Angeles portion of the camp, Edwards excelled and signed a first team deal on March 2.
“Whatever they need,” said Edwards back then of what position he will play. “I'm just here to put my head down as young guy. I can adapt.”
Adapt he has.
Academy product No. 14
Upon signing that deal in March, Edwards became the 14th Academy player to sign a first team deal, joining fellow alumni Ashtone Morgan, Jordan Hamilton, Jay Chapman and Sergio Camargo in the current squad.
He initially joined the club in March of 2015, as part of the Senior Academy side, but was called up to TFC II shortly thereafter, making his professional debut on March 28 against FC Montreal. The move up was made permanent on August 1 when he inked a USL contract.
A fan, from afar
Born in 1995, Edwards was 11 when Toronto had their inaugural season in MLS.
He has grown up watching the club, as he pursued his own future in the sport.
“I remember growing up in my teens, watching [the stadium] open up, Danny Dichio scoring that goal,” recounted Edwards ahead of the home opener. “For me, [playing at BMO Field] is a special moment.”
But his first taste of the game day experience would have to wait until he earned it, the hard way.
“Unfortunately no,” said Edwards when asked if he ever attended matches as a fan. “But I wish I did. I always nagged my mom, asked her, but she wouldn't budge.”
Before joining TFC, Edwards was a one-club man at the youth level.
“I started playing at a young age, six or seven,” recalled Edwards. “I played at Erin Mills SC my entire life until I was 19. After I went to Sheridan [College], and here I am now with Toronto FC.”
At Sheridan, Edwards won both the 2014 CCAA National Champions and was named OCAA Freshman of the Year, appearing in seven matches and scoring eight goals.
It was a relationship developed there that brought him to TFC.
If it weren't for Mo...
Mo Babouli, that is, a teammate at Sheridan, played a pivotal role in bringing Edwards to the club.
“I thought I wasn't good enough,” said Edwards of his reticence. “I knew a couple players on the academy back then – Manny Aparicio, Jordan Hamilton, Chris Mannella – I thought I wasn't at the level at the time. Mo made me believe that I was good enough to play. He helped me out, persuaded me to tryout.”
Babouli was waived by Toronto on April 21, but his impact on the team, in convincing Edwards he had what it took, remains.
Canadian Championship Preview
Johnson's 95th minute heroics may have garnered the headlines, but it was the introduction of Edwards in the 86th minute that really began to turn the tide. His effervescence in attack, his nose for the ball, and his willingness to drive at defenders put Vancouver Whitecaps FC on the back foot, softening them up for the away goal that saw TFC win on aggregate.
A few days later, on July 2, Edwards would make his MLS debut against the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field, coming on in the 88th minute after signing a short-term agreement in the midst of an injury crisis.
Needless to say, it has been a whirlwind year for Edwards, who has barely had a moment to look back on his progression: “When you see commercials of the Voyageurs Cup, how it went down, you say, 'Wow, I was in that game. I saw Will Johnson score that goal and hurt himself'.”
“That's when you start to reflect on it,” continued Edwards. “It was like an out of body experience. I can't really describe it. It's something you look back on and you're very proud.”
No stranger to the score sheet
Edwards is still awaiting his first MLS goal, but he is used to factoring in the attacking third. He was the joint-leading scorer for TFC II in USL last season with six goals.
One thing he's not lacking is...
Confidence, according to Vanney.
Starting off well is one thing, but consistency is another, often a young player sees the heights of one performance followed by a lull the following week, but not so for Edwards, who has gone from strength to strength, seeming to improve with every match. Edwards is quick to point out a reason for this.
“The whole organization; they gave me the confidence. Last season in USL, Jason Bent, Chris Pozniak, did a great job of grooming me right.”
As too does Scott Sutter.
It doesn't hurt that Edwards has a gregarious personality off the pitch as well. In his first encounter with the press, he sauntered in casually, leaning on a nearby corner flag while fielding questions from the assembled pack.
A man of the people
Every day, en route to training, as well as on game days, Edwards can be found riding public transportation, as this reporter can attest, nearly bumping into him and splashing some subway-quality-coffee on the first-year player before sharing a bus towards the KIA training ground.
“I commute from Mississauga; I'm saving up for a car,” said Edwards. “[No one has recognized me yet] on the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission], but when I go to the games [on] the GO train, a couple people have noticed me.
If he keeps up his current pace of contribution, recognition is likely to be a more common occurrence.
Ride the lightning
Most curiously, Edwards can on occasion be spotted wearing a Metallica sweater; a rarity amongst footballers of his generation.
Asked about his choice of wardrobe, Edwards laughed: “Yeah, Clint [Irwin] gets on me on that because I'm not a big fan, I just like the hoodie. So every time he sees me wearing something like that he asks me to name three songs. I couldn't tell him; I just like the shirt.”