[MLS CONFIDENTIAL] As it was during the regular season, Edson Buddle and Chris Wondolowski are neck-and-neck in the playoff scoring race.
True, each has only hit one apiece, but Buddle’s remarkable goal from distance enabled the Galaxy to down Seattle, 1-0, in their conference semifinals, first leg last weekend, and Wondo’s header from a Bobby Convey cross Thursday night stunned the crowd at Red Bull Arena while edging San Jose back in front, 3-2, on aggregate, which is how the series finished.
So the regular-season scoring leaders and MVP finalists are tied with one playoff goal apiece. As he prepared for the second leg against Seattle Sunday night at Home Depot Center, Buddle mused about how the game might play out. (If it keeps its 1-0 advantage, Los Angeles doesn’t need a goal to advance, but then again neither did New York, and look how that turned out.)
Tempers boiled over during the first leg of what is turning into a good West Coast rivalry and Buddle expects that former Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid will have the Sounders primed for game two.
“I’m sure Sigi’s getting them ready to come out high-tempo, and losing at home I know they’re not too happy about that,” said Buddle. “We just have to match that intensity and go beyond that and take care of things at home.”
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena assigned defensive duties to Landon Donovan and David Beckham for the first leg, which limited service and space for Buddle. Sometimes goalscorers have to create their own chances, and this is what Buddle did. His goal, hit on the bounce from more than 30 yards, came after he’d outmuscled defender Pat Ianni to control a long header from teammate Omar Gonzalez. He might have trapped the ball and weighed up his options, or dribbled towards goal, but instead hit the ball fiercely first-time. Often the only question about such a shot is now many rows up in the stands it will land.
Not this time. It looped over keeper Kasey Keller and hit the net inside the far post. Almost immediately debate raged: the strike was brilliant (it was), lucky (a bit of that, too), or he didn’t intend to score. This latter one is puzzling; with no other teammate in the goalmouth, exactly what else could he be doing other than go for goal? How the ball got there really isn't relevant.
After several days of discussing, and perhaps justifying, the effort, Buddle restated a simplistic assessment: “I’ve always played physical like that as a target player. I have to use my body and it’s something that I’m good at. On that play, I was able to get a clean shot and using my body definitely helped to open up the space.”
An offseason training program helped hone those physical traits, and his body (6-foot-1, 170 pounds) is holding up well despite the stress of an MLS season, of which he missed more than a month preparing for and playing in the World Cup. He played only 39 minutes as a substitute against England and Algeria after netting twice in the final tune-up match with Australia.
“It was a big adjustment, getting used to the pace and learning where my teammates were going to be on the field,” he says of playing for the U.S. “That was a big transition for me. I didn’t play as much as I would have liked but the times I did get in I tried my best. Overall, I was happy with it. I don’t think I could have given any more, I gave it my all when I was there.
“It’s not easy having two preseasons, especially one [for the World Cup] in the middle of the regular season, but so far I’ve been able to play hard each and every match.”
While certainly the most spectacular of his 18 goals (17 in the regular season) during the MLS campaign, the goal in Seattle reflects an opportunistic sense that Buddle has developed since he joined the Crew in 2001 as a Project-40 player. Named after the great Pele (real name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento), who celebrated his 70th birthday two weeks ago, Buddle says his father, Winston, a youth soccer coach in his native state of New Jersey, didn’t set the bar all that high.
“There’s no pressure being Edson,” says Buddle, who might have felt differently had his father gone with his first choice, Pele. “My dad just wanted a son who played soccer. He didn’t think I’d go this far. But he didn’t put any pressure on me. My family’s proud.
“I always wanted to play professional soccer. My later years in high school, I looked at Project-40 and I saw Landon leave early. We played against each other and DaMarcus [Beasley], too, I looked at them and wanted to do the same thing. That’s what I had my eyes set on, I wanted to be in a professional environment to reach my potential as a soccer player and that was a good thing for me at the time.”
A DUI arrest in 2005 and subsequent three-week suspension resulted in his departure from Columbus, for which he scored 42 goals in five seasons but dealt with criticisms of laziness and frequently wandering offside. Struggles with the MetroStars and Toronto led to a midseason 2007 trade to the Galaxy.
“It takes some adjusting playing day in and day out on turf,” Buddle says of his days prior to arriving in Los Angeles. “I didn’t wear cleats much in New York or Toronto, I wore turf shoes. Then we’d go on the road and play on grass and that change had a lot to do with my Achilles tendinitis.”
Despite the tendinitis, he scored 15 goals in 2008 and underwent a procedure to correct the problem. In 2009, slowed by a torn hip flexor and badly sprained toe, he missed more than two months of the season and scored just five goals.
Working zealously during the offseason buffed him up and also provided the explosiveness and endurance to perform the other duties required of forwards: holding the ball, making sharp runs, harassing opponents, etc.
The dissection and discussion of his goal at Qwest Field will continue, but he’s already moved on. On his mind is the next game and getting back to MLS Cup, which the Galaxy lost on penalty kicks a year ago, rather than losing the Golden Boot to Wondolowski by a single goal or which of them might win the MVP award. If Los Angeles does the business Sunday, both of them will be still playing next week at least, which is all that matters right now.
“Seattle is a team that fights for 90 minutes,” he says. “They won the Open Cup and you know they’re not going to quit, so we expect that from them.
“Especially the way it ended last year, we know what’s important and that’s winning the championship. That’s the main goal. It’s a privilege to get the individual awards but the main thing is the MLS Cup.”