Published November 20, 2014
NEW YORK (AP) — Edson Buddle has had soccer stardom in his name from birth.
His father Winston, a player himself, named his son after the man considered the greatest in the sport's history: Pele, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
"I thought Pele would be too much pressure," Winston Buddle said this week. "Edson not many people would know.'"
By summer, most U.S. sports fans could know the name.
Edson Buddle hasn't played for the U.S. national team since 2003 but has put himself into consideration for next month's final training camp ahead of the World Cup. The 28-year-old New Yorker has seven goals — count 'em, all seven of his team's goals — to help the Los Angeles Galaxy to a 4-0 start in Major League Soccer.
Because of injuries to Charlie Davies and Brian Ching, the U.S. is uncertain which forwards it will select for its 23-man roster. There are two candidates so unexpected they weren't even picked for last month's exhibition at the Netherlands — Puebla's Herculez Gomez and Buddle.
One named after a mythological Greek hero, the other named after a real Brazilian one.
"I've always thought Edson was a player that could run really hot and cold, and that when it looked like he was really in tune with things and working hard and focused at the right moment, he was extremely dangerous," said Jason Kreis, coach of MLS champion Real Salt Lake. "Edson has shown on multiple occasions in every single season that he's a very, very capable and gifted striker and could be exactly what our national team needs, just with his athletic abilities alone.'"
Eager fans have been debating the pair on Internet message boards, wondering whether U.S. coach Bob Bradley thinks this Bud's for him or is willing to give Mighty Herculez a lift.
Buddle, 6-foot-1 and a strong 185 pounds, has been a MLS lifer. After growing up north of New York City in Westchester County, he spent 1999 at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo., and won the national junior college title.
After a season with the Long Island Rough Riders in the A-League, he played for Columbus for five years. He wound his way through Toronto, New York and Los Angeles over the next two seasons, finally finding a home with the Galaxy alongside Landon Donovan and David Beckham.
Playing two years ago for then-Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit was a key turning point. Gullit was European player of the year in 1987 and captained the Dutch to the European Championship title the next year.
"He was a forward, and he told me I wasn't really playing the role right. And he showed me what I need to do," Buddle recalled this week during an interview with The Associated Press. "He taught me how to stay high, stay high and post up my guy, and movements up in the attacking third. Make sure you look when you shoot. Play with a little bit more conviction, you know? I tend to seem like I'm not trying with my, with my body language."
Buddle has had far more an up-and-down career than a consistent one. After scoring 15 league goals in 2008 — his highest total since 2004 — he dropped to five last season. His injuries read like a medical school orthopedics final — torn right meniscus (1998), torn right quadriceps (2002), Achilles' tendinitis (2003-8), torn left quadriceps (2009), sprained toe (2009).
This year he's healthy, after spending the offseason in California working out rather than returning to New York. His scoring has been unprecedented in the 15-season history of MLS. With one goal against New England, and two each against Chivas USA, Houston and Real Salt Lake, he became the first player to score seven goals in the first four games.
"When you are consistently injured, you lack confidence in a lot of things. So being healthy for a long period of time, he's more confident and more consistent without having to start fresh all the time," said current Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, the former coach of the U.S. national team. "I think the biggest thing about him is he's a big, strong mobile forward that can hold the ball and score goals, and he's good in front of the goal."
Still, it's hard to figure out how the MLS hot streak would translate to fast-paced international play.
"Right now it's electricity in a bottle, and it's certainly impressive to watch," Kreis said, "but it's only four games."
Buddle admits he wasn't the most dedicated player when he was younger. His father says that stems from the way he learned the game.
Winston Buddle, now 53, was born in Jamaica and played there for Montego Bay's Seba United. He says he went on to stints with Iraklis Thessaloniki in Greece and Anorthosis Famagusta in Cyprus, later winding up with the New Jersey Americans and Jersey Eagles of the American Soccer League.
Father couldn't wait to play soccer with his son.
"The ball was there before he was born. It was in the crib waiting for him," he said. "It was nice to have a son to kick the ball around with."
Saying he followed the tradition he knew from Jamaica, Winston Buddle had his son play ball with older men.
"From Day One he showed up, he had talent," said the father, who runs the Golden Touch Soccer training center in New Rochelle. "Any time we have a talented player that's young, you always have him play the big boys. Edson was a scorer, so it would cover up his lack of work rate off the ball and knowledge of the game. It was very hard as a parent, for his dad as coach, to motivate him because he was making everything at full speed."
And perhaps that was a cause of some of the injuries.
"He never put in all the running, so he jumps from not running hard, to not training hard," Winston Buddle said.
Edson's talent showed quickly. He was selected for the U.S. team at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship for players under 20, on the roster in Argentina alongside future national team starters Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey and Conor Casey. Buddle entered as a second-half substitute and scored the final goal in the 4-1 first-round win over Chile.
"I remember Convey dribbling the ball and passing it to Beasley and him passing it to me, and just making sure I put the ball on target. I was just so happy to score for my country," Buddle said.
He finally got to make his national team debut on March 29, 2003, under Arena, replacing Brian McBride in the 80th minute of a 2-0 exhibition win over Venezuela at Seattle. Buddle got hurt shortly after that and those 11 minutes are his entire national team resume, quite a short and distant C.V. for a possible World Cup selection.
But now the goal-scoring spurt is coming at a time when Davies is fighting to regain fitness following severe injuries sustained in an October car crash, and Ching is out after injuring a hamstring April 1 in Houston's season opener. There could be an opening at forward alongside Jozy Altidore ahead of the U.S.'s first World Cup match against England on June 12.
"The national team coaches are always watching. Being in the program so long, they know who I am. So it's not like they're unfamiliar of how I play," Buddle said. "You've just got to keep working hard. You can't just be a little bit better than the guy to take anyone's position. My dad always told me you've got to be three times better than the next person to take the next step forward."
His attributes are clear.
"I'm a target player. I like to help my team join the attack, I would say, I have good feet. I would say. I think I'm good on crosses," Buddle said. "I'm deceptionally fast. I have long legs. I'm a goal scorer."
He is in the final season of his MLS contract, a deal that earned him $179,950 last year. If he keeps scoring at this rate, he'll get a big raise from the Galaxy or wind up with a European club.
"If he's continuing to perform the way he's performing, he's going to have a lot of options," said his agent, Richard Motzkin.
Fitting for someone who has always been tied to soccer's most famous star.
"When I played travel soccer, guys knew who Pele was but they never expected me to live up to that name," he said.
They were even in the same place at the same time, at Giants Stadium in April 2006.
"I didn't shake his hand," Buddle said. "We crossed paths and I got the opportunity to see him in person."
Winston Buddle said his wife went along with naming their son Edson. It wasn't a problem.
"You have the next one," he remembered telling her.
And she did, choosing their daughter's name, Audrey.
However, he reserved the right to make the decision if their second child was a son. After all, Pele isn't his only beloved Brazilian soccer star.
"If I had another boy," Winston Buddle said, "I would name him Zico."