The Edelman household was on its feet as the New York Red Bulls II broke on the counterattack against the Philadelphia Union II. Jake LaCava was the one leading the charge with the ball at his feet, but the Edelmans were more concerned with the run of 17-year-old Daniel Edelman to the left of LaCava. RBNYII outnumbered the Union defenders three to two, but Edelman seemed hesitant to make a run in behind their backline.
“Do it! Do it! Do it!” Ari Edelman – Daniel’s father – recalled his younger son Eric yelling at Daniel through their television. Then he made the run, and LaCava rewarded him with a sideways pass that just about put him one-on-one with the Union’s goalkeeper. He took a touch a to compose himself before firing a hard, left-footed shot underneath the goalkeeper for RBNYII’s third goal of the night.
Daniel’s goal that night had been a dream in the making since his days playing recreational soccer in Watchung Hills, NJ. The years of constantly proving himself to be the best among his teammates and even in older age groups while at the Player Development Academy (PDA) had all been to make this first step at the professional level. As the son of two former Division I college athletes, it quickly became apparent to his mother and father that Daniel possessed the qualities necessary to potentially making a professional career for himself.
“Maybe [Daniel] wasn’t the biggest guy on the field, but it was all up here,” Ari said, pointing to his head. “And when he had that along with the mindset and athletic ability as well as the love for the game, my wife and I just continued to push him.”
That initial push came in the form of moving Daniel from his local travel team to PDA in 2015 where he could be challenged by better teammates and better opposition. His first year at PDA saw him drop back into the center back position for his age group’s “B” team, but the idea of not playing at the top level didn’t sit well with Daniel.
“From there, I was like, ‘I’m not having this,’” said Daniel. “Then two weeks later, they moved me up to the A team and I just kept going up from there. I was going to do everything I could to improve, and nothing was going to stop me. That’s where it all began.”
During his time with PDA, Daniel captained the U15, U17 and U19 age groups and began earning call-ups to USYNT camps. He was included in the U.S. National Team Futures Camp in May of 2017 as well as last year’s Nike International Friendlies where he started two games for the championship-winning U.S. U16 Boys Youth National team. He also had the opportunity to train with A.S. Roma’s under-17 side in February of 2019.
As was the case for most of the world’s population in 2020, COVID-19 slowed down Daniel’s plans for joining the New York Red Bulls academy after the 2019-20 Development Academy season. Though he eventually made the transition from PDA to the Red Bulls, the initial plan to train with the under-19 was put on pause with the global halt to sports.
Instead, he stuck to at-home training regimes provided by academy trainers and took to local fields to train with his brother and close friends. It wasn’t the same as acclimatizing to training and playing with new teammates, but he knew it would keep him prepared for whenever he got back on the field. Then, he got his opportunity to start training with the RBNYII squad as they and the first team prepared for their respective restarts to the season.
With team veterans like Florian Valot, Jared Stroud, Chris Lema and Ben Mines down in Orlando for the MLS is Back tournament, the door was wide open for Daniel to make his mark on the team. Though he only made the bench in their opening match of the USL Championship’s restart, Daniel did make his debut for the club in the final minutes of their 1-0 loss to Hartford Athletic. Five days later, he was in the starting lineup to face Philadelphia.
“We had training that morning, and [Wolyniec] calls us in for the agenda to the day’s training,” said Daniel. “Then I hear my name, and I thought, ‘Woah, second game and I’m already starting. This is crazy.’ Later that night, of course I’m starting to get nervous and feeling the good butterflies in my stomach because this will be a big night for me that will tell me a lot about myself under big pressure. I was just thankful that I got to go out there and get the goal. I think I came out on my toes and put on a good show.”
Given the circumstances of the pandemic, the start to his professional career was more of whirlwind than most prospects are accustomed to. He started training with RBNYII when the team were yet to properly gel together, and he’s now got the opportunity to train alongside the likes of Lema as a small sense of normality returns to the world of sports.
“I like playing with the college draftees because they’re still sharing ideas with me in terms of mentality and IQ about the game,” said Daniel. “I’ve gotten to know a bunch of the guys much better, and the chemistry within the team keeps getting better. [Lema’s] given me ideas about dealing with getting on the ball under pressure and [finding] pockets of space no matter what.”
As an admirer of Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara and a deep-lying midfield himself, Daniel values the opportunity to learn from Lema in person. He specifically cited Lema and Alcantara’s abilities to set the tempo of a match from midfield as an admirable trait and one he hopes to replicate in his own game.
As he prepares to enter his senior year of high school though, the window on what Daniel’s next move in regard to his soccer career grows smaller. With a verbal commitment to the University of North Carolina already in play, it’s now a matter of weighing up the benefits of playing in college or attempting to stick to the professional route out of high school.
“Me and my wife were both Division I athletes, so that’s all we really knew,” said Ari. “We’ve always talked about the importance of education, but today you have to recognize that there’s so many opportunities for these young athletes that weren’t available years ago. You see these unique situations with kids going to Europe and Daniel has a fantastic opportunity with UNC, but there’s so much uncertainty with college athletics and COVID now.”
For Daniel, the goal is eventually to play professionally in Europe. With the rising number of American prospects finding their way to European clubs via youth academies or transfers out of MLS, it’s not an impossible goal. If his early days playing soccer are anything to go off, they’re a testament to just how committed Daniel is to turn that goal into a reality. For now, however, the focus is on having a strong finish to the season with RBNYII and preparing to play for UNC from the fall of 2021. Both Daniel and his family believe strongly that the opportunity to play professionally full time will come if he can stick to those two short-term objectives.