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Mar 13, 2009

Edwards the latest in a line of standout U.S. goalkeepers

Earl Edwards Jr.'s size and athleticism make him a perfect fit to play wide receiver or small forward.

However, Edwards doesn't line up between the hash marks or run the floor. No, this specimen -- a chiseled 6-foot-3, 199 pounds -- is ours.

Score one for the American game: In this rare case, that would be soccer, because this is one talent that actually made it to the pitch.

"I get that a lot," says Edwards, starting keeper for the U.S. national U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. "People ask me why I'm not playing those other sports. I think, with my size, I can go further in soccer and make more of an impact. Now, I just want to make sure I realize my potential."

Of course, futbol nearly lost Edwards, 16, to basketball. He grew up playing both sports, dreaming of playing Division I college basketball. Edwards even chose basketball over soccer as a freshman at La Jolla Country Day in San Diego two years ago -- the sports are played in the same season.

According to Edwards, La Jolla football coach Jeff Hutzler recruited him heavily to play tight end, but Edwards passed. UCLA is where Edwards has verbally committed and when this big man arrives on campus in January 2010, he's headed to the pitch. Not Pauley Pavilion or the Rose Bowl.

"Basketball was definitely my first love," Edwards says. "There is a lot more action in basketball and my father [Earl Sr.] has played his whole life. I was torn, but I love soccer now. I love the pressure. Everything is black and white. You save the ball and you help your team, you don't, and you are done."

Edwards actually landed in the net by chance. Just four years ago, he was playing defender for national power NOMADS Soccer Club in San Diego. However, when the team's starting keeper quit on the spot during a game against the Delmar Sharks, U-12 coach Manny Diaz summoned Edwards to play keeper.

The kid was shocked and nervous, but he bore down, relying on his athleticism and instincts to make saves. Edwards didn't know proper save techniques, so he sprinted from post to post to keep the ball out of net. He figured it was, maybe, a month-long engagement.

However, Diaz saw his raw potential, and convinced him to gut it out. Still, there were some dicey moments. Edwards almost quit after a 4-0 loss to Valley United Blast in the U-13 State Cup final a year into his run.

He continued to develop, growing from 5-8, to 5-10 and, finally, over 6-foot. Edwards developed into an intimidator for the NOMADS. His wing span, seemingly, shrank the goal.

In the air, Edwards attacked the ball, snatching it, often taking out anyone in his way. When he began to learn the nuances of the game, Edwards' athleticism helped him become even more effective.

"People knew Earl because of his size," Diaz says. "They were afraid of him. People had to change their game when they played against Earl. They couldn't play an aerial game and, when kids came at him one-on-one, they would basically just give up the ball. They slowed up, they didn't want to get hurt."

Diaz actually credits basketball, in part, for Edwards' laser-like ascension through the U.S. system. Playing power forward on courts and at playgrounds helped his decision-making, developed his soft hands, and, maybe most importantly, toughened him up.

"Without a question, if Earl didn't play basketball, he wouldn't have developed this quickly," says Edwards' father, Earl Sr. "The footwork and the quick lateral movements are similar. In basketball, he was very intelligent, good at making reads. I think that helps him read what's coming on the field."

The elder Edwards played basketball at Staten Island Community College in the late 1960s and East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University in the early 1970s. He says he introduced his children to soccer for them to socialize and "run and kick the ball around." He would later introduce them to mainstream sports.

Or something like that. Earl Jr.'s big brother, Yohance, played midfielder on top 20 Brown University teams in the early-1990's. His sister, Jasmine, is a freshman striker at Rutgers and scored the game-winning goal in overtime to lead the Scarlet Knights over Penn State in the first round of the NCAA tournament in November.

"For all of them to play at such a high level, and for Earl to be on the national team, is very beneficial to us," Earl Sr. says. "There was some pressure, coaches and parents asking why Earl wasn't playing football. But what it came down to is Earl is a national level soccer player, which we know."

Earl Jr. worked his way up through the NOMADS and Olympic Development Program to play for the U.S. U-14 and U-15 national teams. In June of last year, Edwards even stared down rising U.S. stars Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore at a U-15 training camp in Zarephath, N.J. Edwards' side played a short scrimmage against Adu and Altidore, then with the U-20 national team. The young keeper was lit up for five goals as Adu and Altidore each scored one apiece. Still, after the session, U-20 keepers coach Tim Mulqueen, who helped develop Tim Howard, pulled Edwards aside. Mulqueen asked the shell-shocked keeper his name and scribbled it on a pad.

Two months later, Edwards was in Bradenton.

He plays the game fearlessly, stretching and laying out his body to make big stops. Laying out players -- from Brazil to Japan -- who get in his way. And Edwards is only going to get bigger: He's projected to grow to be 6-5.

"More than his presence, is the personality and leadership Earl brings to the team," U.S. U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera says. "He is a great player, a great athlete, but his leadership is what puts him on another level. Earl reads the game very well and communicates well. It's clear, on the field, he's a leader. That's why he's one of the top players at this age in the country, no doubt about it."

Edwards' goal is to some day be the U.S. national team's starting keeper. Although UCLA is his first choice, Edwards said Newcastle United has shown some interest in signing him to a youth contract, but not lately. Like so many of his U-17 teammates, he will chose a college or, perhaps, a pro team, after this summer's U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.

One thing's for sure, soccer's now his game. Edwards still looks up to NBA stars like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, but his No. 1 guy is Howard. That's who Earl Edwards Jr. wants to be. "I like to think of [Howard] as a better and older version of myself," he says.

Justin Rodriguez covers USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at rodriguezespn@yahoo.com.

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