It’s easy for New York Red Bulls fans used to seeing lineups littered with homegrowns to lose sight that at most clubs in global soccer, having any local academy player reach first-team status is a much rarer and more heralded occasion. When outside back Tom Edwards finally graduated from the Stoke City academy to playing full senior matches, it was considered something of a landmark at the relatively small Staffordshire club known for its recent decade-long stint in the Premier League.
“He has seen all the changes back to when this was just a field and a portacabin. He has seen the complete development of this site,” said Stoke academy director Gareth Jennings in a recent Sky Sports feature. “It is a huge credit to him and it is hugely inspirational for every other boy here. They all wanted to watch him on his debut. They are desperate to go and see him play.”
Edwards broke into the first team at the Britannia Stadium at age 18 on the tail end of the club’s spell in the top flight, making six Premiership appearances in the 2017-18 season before he and the club were relegated into the wilderness of the English lower leagues. The need to trim away expensive first division contracts and build a new squad for a new league has only accelerated the youth movement at Stoke City, with mixed results for the status of Edwards.
In the club’s first season back at second division level, Edwards beat out tough competition (including soon-discarded Everton loanee Cuco Martina) to secure the starting right fullback spot under midseason managerial hire Nathan Jones. Despite only appearing in 29 of 46 league matches as Stoke made a 16th place finish, Edwards won the club’s player of the year award. It was during this time that Edwards became a part of the England U-20 national team setup, making three appearances during the 2018-19 UEFA schedule.
While this all capped a storybook rise for Edwards, it proved also to be the moment the wave crested for him at Stoke. The following season saw the team struggle early, leading to Jones being replaced on the touchline by former Northern Ireland national team manager Michael O’Neill in November. Even prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns of last year, O’Neill appeared unimpressed by the fullback, with Edwards not appearing even on the bench after December. Following the re-assembly of the squad in the summer, O’Neill somewhat bluntly criticized Edwards’ fitness levels upon returning from lockdown.
Desperate to earn playing time at a crucial early stage of his career, Edwards has now taken two massive professional risks in the span of six months. First was taking a reported pay cut to join Fleetwood Town on loan, settling for minutes at League One level just two years after making his debut in the Premiership. Edwards made 11 league appearances under the management of former Premier League controversy magnet Joey Barton, who was fired by Fleetwood this month just days before Edwards also made his exit from the club.
And now Edwards has taken an even further leap of faith in the hopes that he can re-accelerate his young career in the increasingly British-accented clubhouse in New York. Edwards joins fellow young Englishmen Dru Yearwood and Mandela Egbo as former Wolverhampton Wanderers executive and current Red Bulls sporting chief Kevin Thelwell continues to comb the talent network most familiar to him as he rebuilds the squad with former Barnsley manager Gerhard Struber. Indeed, Edwards’ career trajectory closely mirrors that of Yearwood and Egbo, themselves being relatively recent youth level standouts who found the unforgiving nature of English lower leagues to be a challenging environment to develop in. Thelwell’s mining of this carousel of easily-overlooked talent in his home country has been perhaps the most distinctive feature of his tenure thus far, one both Red Bull technical leadership and New York fans will hope pays long-term dividends that recall the success of a former Charlton and Plymouth striker named Bradley Wright-Phillips.
But in the immediate future, the arrival of Edwards also deepens the logjam at the right back position in New York. Despite flashes of quality over this past summer, Egbo saw a brief stint as a starter in the role ended by the return to form of Brooklyn native Kyle Duncan. Duncan’s two-way skills and unexpected goalscoring touch led to some league plaudits as well as a U.S. national team call-up for friendly matches this month, but concerns remained about a lack of physical strength and crossing ability that could lead to difficulty under Gerhard Struber, known for placing high tactical demands on his fullbacks and making the position a key transfer emphasis at his previous clubs. While having too many senior options at a position where talent is hard to find is not the worst problem to have, Duncan’s profile-raising form this past year has (like Tim Parker) made him among the club’s most moveable assets as the team rebuilds.
As expected of a British-trained outside back, an emphatic feature of Edwards’ game is crossing. It was even noted by Edwards that the notoriously fierce winds at the Stoke facilities have forced him to sharpen his crossing skills more than he might have at a different home base. As the winds of change move the Red Bulls to a tactical format that requires long diagonal passes to tall mobile strikers, a move for a player with Edwards’ specific skillset should be the latest encouraging sign that there’s a plan again in New York.