Raheem Edwards earned a first-team contract on March 2nd, and became the 14th player to be signed by Toronto FC from the Kia Toronto FC Academy. Receiving a top-tier team contract is an important step for any young player. When asked how much his life had changed, Edwards explained that he already felt like he “was part of the team already last year. They welcomed me with open arms, every time I trained I felt like I was part of the group”. The ability to fit into the group is possibly one of Edwards’ strongest characteristics off the pitch. He tells me how he likes “to make jokes, and make people feel good. I like to ease the tension in the change room”. The confidence that Edwards has and his relaxed and easy-going manner served him well when he was subbed onto the pitch in the 75th minute of last night’s all-Canadian match-up against Vancouver. After entering the game, Edwards was able to quickly make an impact, creating some excellent chances before finally providing the cross that led into the first goal of the match. Who is this young man, who just stormed into the hearts of Toronto FC fans, electrifying the team to clinch their first win of the season? NSXI was lucky enough to talk to Edwards shortly after he was signed; gaining some insight into what drives Edwards and his upward trajectory in Canadian soccer.
Raheem Edwards was born in Toronto, but raised in Mississauga by his mother, who works as an accountant. He grew up playing soccer for the local team: Erin Mills Soccer Club. “I played for them my entire life until I was 19”, he says. I ask him what prompted him to play soccer; “funny story”, he tells me; “I was about six or seven and my mom signed me up for soccer. I started crying because I wanted to be a football player and play contact football. My mom said “no that’s too dangerous”, and I remember I started crying and saying I don’t want to be a soccer player. But thank God mom put me in soccer because I would not be good at football. Thank God my mom didn’t listen to me.” He explains that it did not take him long to embrace soccer; “I always had a competitive drive. Once I played my first game I loved it, but we lost and I started crying”. I ask him if crying was something he did a lot. He laughs and tells me that yes, he “was a cryer, every time we lost I cried-I was a big crier. I hated losing”.
When he was nineteen, Edwards attended Sheridan College and studied electrical techniques. He was planning on becoming an electrician. This surprised me, as I assumed that he would have been focusing on developing a soccer career at 19. Edwards explained that he had actually doubted his own abilities until Mo Babouli pushed him to try out. Toronto FC has more reasons than one to be grateful to Mo Babouli: his hard work on the pitch went a long way in carrying Toronto FC past their injury plagued start to last year’s season. Pushing Edwards to try out for the Academy is certainly another feather in Babouli’s cap.
Edwards met Babouli during his year at Sheridan. He tells me that “we ended up playing on the same team. So we won the national championships in 2014”. Sheridan hosted the CCAA Men’s Soccer Championship that year, so winning must have been an incredibly proud moment for the young squad of players; two of which would go on to play for Toronto FC. Babouli felt that Edwards had what it takes to play for Toronto, so he encouraged Edwards to “go try out for Toronto FC”. He helped a lot”, and has remained a close friend of Edwards since they reunited on the first team roster.
“I remember back when I was 16 or 17, I didn’t want to try out for Toronto FC because I wouldn’t make it. I knew of so many great players that I knew personally that tried out for TFC who didn’t make it, so if they didn’t make it I thought I wouldn’t make it. So when I tried out, I tried out thinking that I might not make it. But then they saw something in me and they liked it”. This spark has been a bit unpredictable, but Toronto’s coaching team is confident that they can continue to develop it in Edwards, and it continues to shine more often than not in recent years.
Edwards had a lot of positive words for the Academy system and Jason Bent’s work. “Jason Bent is a great coach”, he tells me. On TFC II, “developing academy players become better, faster, more physical. USL brings more of a professional environment”, giving the players a chance to really grow in their abilities. I ask him about what he feels is the priority for TFC II: winning, or developing players: “a little bit of both to be honest. It’s more breaking into the first team, but obviously we want to create a winning atmosphere down in USL to try to catch the attention of the first team. If you’re a coach and you see players from your second team that are winning, that is a good recipe for your first team as well. So in USL for sure we want to do better than what we have done in previous years. So yeah, it takes a little bit of both. You want to win but you also want to push kids and push people up to the first team”.
The system has certainly worked for Edwards, who was able to experience his debut MLS appearance in the 2016 season, as well as make an appearance in the Amway Championship. Edwards describes how, when he came into the Amway game against Vancouver, “it was an out of body experience”. He didn’t expect to actually be put into the game, but “if you’re there, you better be ready to come on if necessary”.
Edwards has a knack for staying calm under pressure, an ability that was strongly demonstrated during his play last night, as well as in the U23 game against Guyana during the squad’s 10-day Canadian Camp and Caribbean Tour last summer. Edwards experienced his first ever start for team Canada on the Caribbean Tour. He remembers “having a really good game. We played well against Guyana in a tough environment. I believe I had 3 assists and 1 goal in that game. I was feeling good”. Edwards was named the star of the match, and performed admirably-especially for his first starting appearance. He demonstrated the same calmness when making his MLS debut, and was able to make an attempt on goal three minutes into his appearance. I ask him what was going through his mind when lining up for the shot on goal. He tells me how he remembers thinking “should I crush the ball or should I try to finesse it”. Having the ability to make in-game decisions like these is one of the trademarks of a talented player; making the right decisions comes with experience. “Ultimately”, Edward says, “I made the wrong decision and tried to place the ball. I didn’t know how far I was out, I wasn’t really that aware but I remember placing the ball and it just rolled to the keeper’s hands. If I could take it back, I would crush that ball as hard as I could”. Thankfully, that moment was not Edwards’ last opportunity; his work last night shows that he has the level-headedness to make the right calls in pinch plays.
As a natural right winger, Edwards likes to “take people on 1 v 1”, using his pace to “get a cross in or just try to break open” for an opportunity. He is a ball-handler that prides himself on maintaining composure and foresight when controlling the ball. It is no surprise that his favourite player is Keisuke Honda, who he sees as “excellent back in the day. I know he wasn’t the best player ever, but I just really loved him as a player. He was so composed on the ball and his final ball was outstanding”.
Edwards has the talent and the grit to make him a successful player, and he is optimistic that he can find his way onto the first team. “I’ve got to show my worth, and we’ll see but I feel like I can get minutes in this first year on the first team”. These words have already proven to be prophetic, as three games into the season Edwards was able to capitalize on an opportunity to play, as a result of Sebastian Giovinco resting after experiencing a contusion in the IT band during the game against Philadelphia last weekend. One thing that will help him achieve his goal is to adapt to Vanney’s system and demonstrate the ability to fill into specific rolls. In particular, Edwards is being directed towards Justin Morrow’s left-wing side. Morrow has no natural replacement for the work that he does, so Edwards may have more opportunities to see some playing time this season if Morrow needs rest or experiences an injury. He believes that he “can adapt to the position”. Although the 3-5-2 formation is relatively new and Edwards does not have a great deal of experience with it, he is “catching on quickly”, and he believes he “will adapt well to the position”. Spending time with the USL squad will certainly help him in this, as Jason Bent will make the 3-5-2 formation a priority for the young players to learn.
Edwards will continue to work on his skill as a player, and will seek to adapt to whatever position he finds himself on the pitch He tells me that “I’m ready to play for my city, play for my team, and put my head down and work”. Yet, Edwards does not want his newly-found success to go to his head. Maintaining composure and perspective is important as he continues to climb the ladder.