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What Orlando City Should Do With Earl Edwards Jr. Down the Stretch

Earl Edwards sitting on an MLS bench helps nobody.

MLS: Toronto FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There comes a turning point for every organization when you have to weigh a myriad of decisions relating to performance versus development. Who plays at each level? Where do we insert the youth? What goals are still on the table for the organization?

For Orlando City, that time couldn’t be more at present as the MLS side is out of the playoff picture while OCB remains in a tight playoff race. One of the major decisions recently by the club has been the call-up of Earl Edwards Jr. to back up Joe Bendik upon the season-ending injury of veteran Josh Saunders.

If you need to know Edwards’ importance to OCB, just look here, as he recently earned the USL's Player of the Month:

The issue is what does Edwards being brought up to the MLS actually achieve? Any goalkeeper coach will tell you, especially at his age, that time on the field means more than anything. This isn’t like being a backup NFL quarterback, where there are playbooks and defenses to study. If you’re not out there on the field, then your growth is minimal to nothing at all.

As I see it, there are three options for Orlando in terms of what to do with Edwards right now:

  1. Resume his starting duties with OCB.
  2. Start the remainder of the MLS season.
  3. Sit the MLS bench in case he’s needed due to an injury to Bendik.

That order is no coincidence, but I’ll actually attack them in reverse order.

As aforementioned, sitting a promising goalkeeper in prime ages literally does nothing for them. A keeper’s game is developed by building a catalog of situational experiences that they continue to call on throughout their career. You don’t create this catalog by studying pictures or film. If you’re not in the net, you’re not learning. There’s no added experience gained watching Bendik from the bench than there is watching him on TV or from the stands.

If Orlando City had a realistic, or even outside, chance at making the playoffs then potentially having a more reliable backup would be necessary. But at less than one percent, there’s no reason for Edwards not to be gaining valuable experience on the field.

Option 2 presents a much more developmental opportunity for Orlando as a whole. By giving Edwards starts at the MLS level, the club can determine if he has what it takes to be a viable full-time option at that level. Gaining valuable experience at MLS speed which will challenge him far beyond the USL’s quality is important. It also gives OCB the opportunity to evaluate its own depth chart while developing backup Jake Fenlason, who, until recently, had been relegated to glorified ball boy behind one of the USL’s best.

That route isn’t without its problems, however. Bendik has arguably been the MLS’ best goalkeeper much of this season, leading the league with saves and being a near-permanent staple on the MLS Save of the Week nominations. With the expected tinkering and integration of youth in the back line, Bendik provides trust and consistency that these backs will need not to deter their development. Forcing an entirely new defensive unit, despite no chances to win, doesn’t set up anyone to succeed. And, in my opinion, a minor aspect is Orlando City still needs to put a respectable squad on pitch and an entirely youth-driven back line screams trouble. Not to mention if there’s one player who doesn’t deserve to be benched, it’s Bendik, who should be the team’s MVP this season.

That all leads to the final option (number 1) and one that this writer believes is the best option for Orlando City as a whole organization. The organization still has a chance at having two of its three teams making the playoffs, assuming the Pride hold on. While the MLS side gets the majority of the attention, no one should argue against having two thirds of your organization in the playoffs is a successful cycle.

Edwards has been one of the best at his position in the USL this season, leading OCB into a playoff spot just before his call-up. Unfortunately, Jake Fenlason simply hasn’t been up to the same level in his two-game stint. That’s not all his fault, but he’s shown nothing that illustrates he should be anywhere but on the bench in case of injury. OCB in a playoff hunt needs its Landlord back to steady a shaky back line after two rough performances. If the goal is to reach the playoffs (and further), then having your No. 1 back in net is going to be what takes the team there.

Luckily for us, and this conversation, my sources tell me the club is expected to meet this week on Edwards’ immediate future. This decision will give a clear picture into what the club’s priorities are moving forward for the end of the season. It will determine whether the Lions value a successful USL season over shoring up a nearly pointless roster slot at this point while costing valuable development for Edwards.

When looking at the three viable options, Orlando City in this case doesn’t have to weigh performance vs. development, because you get both in keeping Edwards with OCB. He continues building his catalog, while simultaneously pushing the young Lions into a playoff spot. Sitting Edwards on the bench in any scenario helps no one — not Orlando City, OCB, or Edwards. If not with OCB, at least let him take the reins for a couple of MLS matches as not to stifle a great season by a promising goalkeeper.

The choice is clear to me. I just hope the organization sees it that way.