TORONTO – Raheem Edwards’ head is still spinning.
In the space of four months, Edwards signed his first professional contract with Toronto FC, and become somewhat of a regular starter and key contributor for the best team in Major League Soccer this season.
Then on Tuesday came another milestone as Edwards, a 21-year-old native of Toronto, earned his first cap for the national team in Canada’s 2-1 over Curacao in an international friendly in Montreal.
Edwards has been one of TFC’s most dynamic attackers this season, winning plaudits for his composed play while usually deployed as a wingback or an outright winger. Canadian coach Octavio Zambrano has been closely monitoring Edwards, and decided to reward him on Tuesday when he named the speedster to his starting line-up against Curacao.
Edwards’ ascent is amazing story. Three years ago he was playing college soccer at Sheridan before moving on to Toronto FC’s youth academy. He spent the previous two years with the TFC 2 farm club in the United Soccer League. Today, he’s a starter for his country and one of the most promising prospects in MLS.
“It’s been a very, very fast journey in terms of my development and pushing through the ranks. It doesn’t hit me as much as when people bring it up to me, and how quick it’s been. I don’t take any of it for granted. I’m always humble. Playing in my hometown and for the national team, it means so much to me. To be now be able to wear the Maple Leaf, it’s a tremendous honour,” Edwards told Sportsnet ahead of TFC’s home game against D.C. United on Saturday night.
Edwards was one of four players who earned their first cap for Canada on Tuesday night – Alphonso Davies of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Juan Cordova were the others, all of them coming on as second-half substitutes. Edwards started and was subbed out in the 53rd minute.
After the game, Zambrano lauded the play of the team’s youngsters, hinting that he won’t hesitate to use them during next month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“Youth really has nothing to do with it in terms of how much you can contribute on the field,” Zambrano told reporters.
The significance of Canadian coach’s bold statement wasn’t lost on Edwards.
“It shows the coach has confidence in the young players. If we’re playing well, he’ll give us a try. It shows there’s a balance between the young guys and the senior guys that I think compliment the team well,” Edwards offered.
Zambrano deployed Edwards was a right winger in a 4-3-3 formation that saw him playing in support of striker Cyle Larin. It was somewhat of a new role for Edwards, who has mostly been used on the left flank by TFC coach Greg Vanney.
“He told me afterwards he wants his wingers to have a solid work rate; that the work rate has to be at both ends, offensively and defensively. Me playing wingback [with TFC] suits me perfect, so I didn’t have to adapt much for Canada,” Edwards said.
“He likes what I’m doing with TFC, and he wants me to translate that into the men’s national team, whether that be on the left flank or the right flank.”
Vanney watched Edwards’ performance and thought his young star did well in his debut for his country.
“He doesn’t play right wing all the time for us, so there’s a little bit of a feeling our process when you go from playing as a [wingback] to sometimes playing as a forward with us, to paying on the wing,” Vanney said.
“Any time you get your first cap, there’s some emotion, there’s some different things that your managing over the course of the game. But I thought Raheem looked good.”
The experience was also valuable for Edwards in that it allowed him to pick the brain of Canadian national team veterans such as Patrice Bernier and Will Johnson, who both told him what he can expect when playing for his country in the future.
And, of course, Edwards and Bernier, who plays with the Montreal Impact, couldn’t resist trading jibes ahead of the Canadian Championship finals, with the first leg between the two clubs scheduled for next Wednesday at Stade Saputo.
“I was telling him that I’ll be back real soon and beating him on his home turf. He was giving me some stick, too. There was good banter going on back and forth. Patrice is a nice guy. He’s a funny guy. I love him, man,” Edwards said.
NOTES: Vanney revealed that Tosaint Ricketts is ahead of schedule with his recovery from a hamstring strain, and is hopeful the forward should return to action for the second leg of the Canadian Championship final against the Montreal Impact on June 27 at BMO Field… Vanney confirmed that midfielder Jonathan Osorio was dealing with a groin strain, but that he is fully fit and will be available for Saturday… Vanney said he expects to lose anywhere from four to seven players due to Gold Cup duty later this month. TFC’s American players who will get called up are scheduled leave on June 25 or 26, and the Canadian-based players on June 28. The Gold Cup runs from July 7-26.