In 2021, the Wellington Phoenix threw Brianna Edwards a lifeline when she was in danger of quitting football. The goalkeeper grabbed it, hauled herself out of an unhappy situation and established herself as one of the best keepers in a country she’d never lived in before.
Now she’s off to Chile, representing her new nation as part of the Football Ferns.
Born and raised in Sydney, Edwards moved to the United States to play college football and found herself falling out of love with the game.
“I really wasn’t happy and I honestly said to my mum ‘I don’t really care if I don’t play, I just want to come home’,” the 20-year-old explains.
Eligible to represent New Zealand through her Kiwi-born dad, playing for the newly-established Phoenix women’s side hadn’t been on Edwards’ radar.
“But as soon as [an offer to play] popped up, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass,” she says.
“I always say the Phoenix saved me from not wanting to play football anymore. So when I signed, it was an easy decision. It was an easy ‘yes’ to an opportunity I wasn’t expecting.”
In her first season with the Phoenix, Covid protocols meant the team were based in Wollongong, not far from Edwards’ family in Sydney. Brianna’s twin sister, Siobhan, also plays football, after their mum wanted them to play a team sport that wasn’t netball as kids.
Edwards played just two games of the Phoenix’s inaugural season, as captain Lily Alfeld took the goalie gloves. But a string of injuries ruled Alfeld out in 2022-23 – and the upcoming season – giving Edwards an opportunity to further develop her game.
Naturally, it created conflicting feelings for Edwards, who was devastated for her teammate.
“Lily and I are really, really good friends, which sometimes is quite unique for goalkeepers to be close, but we are. From the first season, she’s always been my role model,” she says.
“When she told me she wasn’t going to be able to play, the first thing she said was ‘This is your chance, this is your opportunity, you got it’. She was more excited for me than I was.
“Even now, I’m still gutted for her, but I know this is my time to take the opportunities I have in front of me and run with them as far as I can and use them to my advantage.”
Edwards was full of nerves last season, the step-up unexpected and creating added pressures mentally – especially as a keeper.
“Goalkeeping is 100 percent a mental game, being able to bounce back after conceding, or keeping your head in the game when we score or trying to manage all those emotions and all those moments in games,” she explains.
“It was something I hadn’t really done at a high level before and that was probably the biggest step-up. I think it took a few games to really get the gist of it, but after a while, I feel like I thrive in that. That’s where I want to be and that’s why we play.”
Edwards was selected in the training programme for the Football Ferns’ build-up to the FIFA World Cup earlier this year. And while she didn’t make the final 23, the time spent training alongside New Zealand’s best was a dream come true.
“If you had told me a year before that I would be in contention for a World Cup, I probably would have laughed and thought you were joking,” she says.
“But it was really cool, it was such a great environment to be around.”
Edwards returned home to Sydney during the tournament, and watched the Football Ferns’ opening game sitting in the stands for the Matildas game, proudly wearing her Ferns jersey.
“I was cheering for them and honestly when that final whistle blew, I felt a part of that,” she says. “That’s what the Ferns is about and that’s what I felt, going through that camp with them.”
And now, getting the call-up from head coach Jitka Klimková for the Football Ferns’ team to play two matches against Chile, was another unexpected surprise.
“When Jitka rang me and told me I was going away with them, I honestly didn’t even know what to say,” Edwards admits.
“I’m really excited to push myself, and work with [fellow keepers] Vic [Esson] and Anna [Leat] and get the best out of that environment that I can. To be a part of international games and to be a part of the Ferns, it’s just a dream and I’m really grateful. I honestly can’t wait.”
Edwards comes into the squad ahead of 83-cap Ferns keeper Erin Nayler, who’s easing her workload after dealing with a hip injury. She’s also just signed as back-up keeper for German giants Bayern Munich.
While Edwards’ sudden thrust into the first-choice goalkeeper for the Phoenix helped develop her game, it also her boosted her belief in her own abilities.
“With playing and game time comes confidence and I think my confidence just grew and grew over the last season,” she says.
“Being in those high pressure environments and training at high levels more often, you get that kind of confidence and you know you can do whatever you put your mind to.
“My biggest improvement last season was my confidence and backing myself in those moments.”
When Edwards signed on with the Phoenix for this season, she didn’t know Alfeld was ruled out, or who the other goalkeepers on the team were going to be.
“The point of playing is to fight for your spot and be the best in that moment in the team, and it doesn’t matter who was playing, whether Lily was back or not,” Edwards says.
“I want to be a first-choice goalkeeper so whether that means I’m competing against someone who already is a number one or someone who maybe is perceived as a number two, either way the competition is there and I want to keep pushing myself.”
The Phoenix won just two games in their inaugural season, losing 11 and finishing with seven points. Last season, they managed to win three and drew four. It wasn’t enough to raise them off the bottom rung of the ladder, with 13 points, but the team looked much improved.
This year, they have a new coach – former Phoenix Academy technical director Paul Temple taking the reins for the next two seasons.
Pre-season work has only just begun, but Edwards is enjoying the new-look side already.
“The quality of the sessions has been really good and I think that’s just going to keep getting better as we keep going through pre-season and as we get into the season,” she says.
“Obviously having new coaching staff, everything’s going to feel a bit different but some change is good. I think this season is going to be really positive and we’re going to get the best out of each other as players, and as coaches as well.”
Edwards will travel to Chile with Phoenix teammates Michaela Foster, Kate Taylor and Grace Wisnewski, but has grown close to a lot of the Ferns at previous training camps.
“I’m the kind of person who makes friends with everyone, to be honest. But obviously going with the Phoenix girls, Wiz [Wisnewski] and I are really close so going all together, it’s just really cool,” Edwards says.
Edwards is the only uncapped member of the squad, which has seen four members of the World Cup team out, and five fresh faces in.
She’ll bring her youthful energy to the team, and is eager to soak it all in.
“I feel like I’m a big ball of energy constantly and I’m really excited for everything all the time,” Edwards says.
“A lot of energy and personality to give and to share around, that’s probably how people would describe me. Just a lot of energy.”
*The Football Ferns will play two matches against Chile – the first on Sunday, September 24, at 11am NZT. The second match will be played behind closed doors the following Wednesday (27th).
**Football Ferns team: CJ Bott, Katie Bowen, Claudia Bunge, Olivia Chance, Milly Clegg, Brianna Edwards, Victoria Esson, Michaela Foster, Ally Green, Jacqui Hand, Betsy Hassett, Grace Jale, Anna Leat, Annalie Longo, Grace Neville, Gabi Rennie, Ali Riley, Indiah-Paige Riley, Paige Satchell, Malia Steinmetz, Rebekah Stott, Kate Taylor, Hannah Wilkinson, Grace Wisnewski.