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Orlando City goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. pleased to earn starting opportunity

Orlando City SC goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr (36) makes a save against the Toronto FC during the first half at Orlando City Stadium. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla — Orlando City goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. didn’t know he was going to get his first MLS start this season until just before the club went out for warmups ahead of its match against Toronto FC.

Saturday’s match was a chance for Edwards – a backup goalkeeper since he was selected 43rd overall in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft – to shine. New coach James O’Connor elected to bench goalkeeper Joe Bendik and Edwards was given a shot. 

“For me, I feel like it’s been a long time coming,” he said.

Orlando City’s 2017 season finale was Edwards’ first MLS start, but he only got the opportunity because Bendik had a concussion. Plus, that first start didn’t go well. Orlando City was drubbed 6-1 by the Philadelphia Union.

Edwards said if anything, that loss motivated him even more.

Now with a start – and a win – under his belt, Edwards said he’s not feeling the pressure to keep his place in the starting XI. Edwards put together a solid performance against the Reds, recording three saves in a 2-1 win.

One of those saves was with TFC forward Sebastian Giovinco shooting from near-point-blank range. 

“I kind of got my MLS debut kind of by default with Joe getting a concussion,” he said. “From my perspective, to really earn the right and to be given the opportunity from a head coach has been very rewarding.”

Edwards said he approached Saturday’s game the same we he’s approached just about every weekend he’s been with Orlando City. He woke up, had breakfast – no, there wasn’t a specific meal – spent some time with his dog, napped, ate some more and went to the stadium.

He still approaches training with the same mentality he had before Saturday’s match. He’s focused on improving, not when he’ll get his next start.

“I haven’t even thought about that, actually,” he said. “I’m just going to come out here every day, keep working hard as I have the last three and half years and try to keep the mentality I had over that time. Just keep working hard and see what happens.

“I don’t see it as my job. James has made it very clear that everything is going to be very competitive and he’s going to play the guy that he thinks gives him the best chance to win. He’ll determine that based on training.”

O’Connor after Saturday’s game said Bendik’s reaction to being benched was professional. Speaking to members of the media on Monday, O’Connor gave no indication on if or when Bendik could be inserted back into the starting XI.

Edwards said Bendik has been, and continues to be, a great mentor and leader for the club.

Orlando City returns to action on Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup against the Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium.

“I don’t think there’s a specific timeline or time frame,” he said. “I think, for us, it’s just very much a case of when you come in, you look everyone. You give people opportunities. For us, it’s pretty simple. With Joe, there’s nothing to worry about. Everyone knows how good Joe is and there’s no issue there with that.”

Waiting behind an entrenched starter is something Edwards learned about during his time at UCLA. While there, he had to wait behind Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Brian Rowe.

Edwards said he learned how to stay ready to play, even if he wasn’t projected to start.

“It was a struggle and something I got to learn from then,” Edwards said. “Just trying to bring it every day and knowing that Joe or someone in front of me could go down in a game in the middle of the game – it could come that way.

“It’s just a constant mental grind, really. It starts in training. Every day, every drill, every rep, trying to be as focused as possible knowing that this could be your shot. This could be your chance. It’s more of a mental strength-type thing.”

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