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Apr 7, 2010

Buddle poised for success

Edson Buddle is no stranger to streaks. In 2008, the Los Angeles Galaxy forward notched two hat tricks on his way to a 15-goal season. Then there was his stint with Toronto FC in 2007, when he failed to find the back of the net in 10 games.

So what to make, then, of Buddle's impressive start to the 2010 campaign? With three goals in his first two games, Buddle has provided precisely the kind of scoring touch the Galaxy needed to take pressure off attacking hub Landon Donovan. And with Donovan often dropping back into midfield, Buddle has also delivered the physical presence up top needed to keep L.A.'s attack ticking over.

Is this current spell another teasing indicator of Buddle's talent, or is it now a more permanent part of his game? Ever the confident striker, Buddle is of the belief it's the latter. At the same time, he's quick to temper expectations in describing his quick start to the season.

"It's still early, and I've learned that when things are going good, you can't go running your mouth," said Buddle with a laugh that was easily audible over the telephone.

In Buddle's case, the lesson in caution has been learned the hard way. The native of New Rochelle, N.Y., is one in a long line of American strikers pegged as the Next Big Thing, especially after he bagged 39 goals for the Columbus Crew in a four-year span that began in 2002. In the process, he wowed teammates and opponents alike with his pace, power and finishing ability.

Yet Buddle's game was also plagued by inconsistency, and in the process he developed a reputation for some questionable training habits that included showing up late to practice as well as treatment sessions for injuries. And when he was convicted of drunken driving in 2005 for refusing to take a Breathalyzer test during a traffic stop, Buddle was suspended by MLS for three weeks and ordered to undergo a league-mandated assessment program for substance abuse.

The stain of such an incident doesn't wash away quickly, even though to a man, former teammates and coaches insist that Buddle was a positive presence in the Crew locker room.

"[Buddle's] attitude was good every time he was out there to train," said former teammate and current San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper Jon Busch. "He was just a kid trying to learn."

Current Columbus coach Robert Warzycha was a teammate, assistant coach and interim head coach of Buddle's during the forward's time with the Crew. "I can say that I was often thinking that [Buddle] was underachieving," Warzycha said, "and I think at the time he was really frustrated with the way things were going. But on the practice field, he was very competitive. I can't remember one practice where he would come and not perform or not give everything."

Yet Buddle admits that growing up he allowed himself to be distracted by what he calls "some of the wrong influences," a trait that carried over into his life as a professional soccer player. Looking back, he feels the suspension amounted to something of a wake-up call.

"It's one of those things where you have to think which direction you want to go in," said Buddle. "I decided to go in the right direction, think more positively, hang around the right people, and make the right decisions."

Over the next few seasons, however, Buddle was never in one place long enough to really put that attitude to use. Prior to the 2006 season, the Crew traded him to New York, where he spent a solitary season before being shipped to Toronto. His aforementioned barren streak then led to his being sent to Los Angeles midway through the 2007 campaign.

But in L.A., even amid the circus that was Beckham-mania, Buddle found the stability he was craving. He was one of the prime beneficiaries of having David Beckham and Donovan on the field together. And though last season he struggled with injury in tallying only five goals, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena feels that Buddle's maturity has translated into more consistency in all facets of his game. Having coached Buddle while the pair was in New York as well as during the player's brief stints with the U.S. national team, Arena is in a position to know.

"He's clearly a better pro now," said Arena of Buddle. "He's one of the most dedicated players we have in our locker room. He's usually the first one in, and not surprisingly, he's the last to leave on some days. Guys with that kind of attitude and professionalism are a real plus for the team. And Edson has had to work real hard for the past year and a half to get healthy. He's put in the time."

Buddle's work ethic was also revealed in the way he spent the past offseason. Rather than return to New York, Buddle remained in L.A., where he augmented his typical offseason workout regimen with pickup games that included MLS players Robbie Rogers and Sacha Kljestan. The additional work on the ball, not to mention a lengthy spell of good health, has allowed him to carry some momentum into the start of the season. And it remains the single biggest reason why the L.A. forward is poised for more success.

Of course, given his current good form, the inevitable question of whether Buddle can somehow pry his way into the U.S. national team frame has popped up. Suffice it to say, Buddle is one L.A. forward who isn't expecting any phone calls from U.S. manager Bob Bradley.

"I haven't been to any camps, so [Bradley] has other people in mind," said Buddle. "At this point, it would be a real long shot."

For the present, Buddle will have to content himself with praise from teammates and even former coaches. Warzycha counts Buddle as "one of the best forwards in the league." That, combined with a settled club situation on a winning team, isn't a bad place to be.

"Ending up in L.A. was probably a blessing in disguise," said Buddle, before channeling his inner Randy Newman. "I've been here four years now, and I'm really happy. I love it."

That's one streak Buddle hopes will last for a while longer.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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