Pedigree, reputation, all-round ability and experience – these are most often the criteria used when a coach goes about the arduous process of selecting a national side for a FIFA World Cup™. But on occasion, and most assuredly in the case of a striker, current form makes the decision quite an easy one, and all the other attributes and considerations go right out the window.
Edson Buddle, 29, had amassed only 11 minutes of national-team football for USA back in 2003 in a friendly against Venezuela, and he featured in no qualifying games for South Africa 2010, nor at the CONCACAF Gold Cup or last year's FIFA Confederations Cup. But he did begin the 2010 Major League Soccer campaign with nine goals in seven games for Los Angeles Galaxy. That, in addition to his sharp understanding with club mate and national playmaker Landon Donovan, meant coach Bob Bradley simply could not ignore the jet-heeled MLS veteran. He moved directly to the front of the queue, passing by such tempting prospects as Eddie Johnson, Freddy Adu and ever-reliable veteran Brian Ching in the United States' attacking pecking order.
At the weekend, the New York-born player's hot form continued. He grabbed a pair of goals (one with his head and one with his foot) in USA's comprehensive 3-1 win over Australia in their last friendly before beginning their Group C campaign against mighty England in Rustenburg on Saturday. His fellow surprise inclusion in attack, Herculez Gomez – who bullied his way into the team with a top-scorer season in Mexico with Puebla – got the final goal in the rout, with largely unknown Real Salt Lake speed merchant Robbie Findley also giving good account of himself.
And with regular starter Jozy Altidore forced to sit out with an ankle injury, the door might well be open for Buddle to become the heir apparent to Charlie Davies – missing South Africa after being injured in a car wreck – as the fresh, hungry sparkplug in the team. "It's always great to get goals, as a striker you live for that – it's your job. My confidence has improved, and I helped the team to get a good win just before we're about to get started in the biggest tournament in the world," the striker, playing in his first world finals, told FIFA.com. "Everything is happening so quickly," added MLS's leading scorer, who has shed his previous reputation as a dangerous but injury-prone attacker to become the toast of the domestic football scene. "I am just trying to embrace it and I feel like I belong here."
His coach, Bradley, not a man to hand out compliments cheaply, is in agreement. "He's getting more comfortable in the group and against Australia you saw what he's been doing in MLS, taking chances and finishing well." Goalkeeper Tim Howard is even more effusive about the frontrunner, saying: "It seems everything Edson touches is a goal these days."
What's in a name?
Buddle, whose main attribute aside from a predatory nose for goal is his blistering pace, was seemingly destined for a life in football. His father, a former semi-professional player born in Jamaica and owner and operator of a football academy in the northern suburbs of New York, was such an avowed fan of Brazilian legend Pele during his stint at the Cosmos in the late 70s that he decided to name his first-born son after 'O Rei'.
"I didn't want to name him Pele straight out and put too much pressure on him," Buddle Senior said recently. "So I decided to give him the first of his names," he went on, referring of course to the full name of the man considered widely as history's best player, Edson Arantes do Nascimento. When asked after his two-goal day in Roodeport against the Aussies, Buddle's thoughts quickly went back to his old man. "I'm not sure if he even knows I scored yet," he told FIFA.com with a proud smile. "But word travels fast, so he might. I'll be on the phone to him pretty soon anyway."
For Buddle, 11 goals in 26 appearances with lower-league Long Island Rough Riders in 2000 brought him a move to the newly-established US top flight. Between 2001 and 2005 he scored 42 goals in just over 100 appearances for Ohio-based Columbus Crew, but injuries and unsuccessful stints in New York and Toronto seemed to blunt the his progress. A move to LA Galaxy in 2007 and the opportunity to play with David Beckham and Donovan, however, helped turn Buddle into the player he always threatened to be.
His current form might well make him the first man off the bench for the Stars and Stripes here in South Africa, or – if circumstances conspire – even a starter. "There's not once that I've felt out of place since I've been here in South Africa, and I just want to help in any way that I can," he concluded, eyes sparkling with hope and drive in the dim bowels of the tiny Ruimsig Stadium, on the outskirts of Johannesburg.