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The Lowdown: Jen Buczkowski, the ironwoman of NWSL

Jen Buczkowski with FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski before her final professional match. (photo courtesty FC Kansas City)

Jen Buczkowski with FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski before her final professional match. (photo courtesty FC Kansas City)

Monday was a rainy day in Kansas City which meant FC Kansas City training was moved to an indoor location. That would have meant a longer drive for Jen Buczkowski, and she was just fine not having to worry about it. The end of the week might be different. Buczkowski won’t be on the plane to Boston, and she won’t be in the lineup for Sunday night’s match against the Breakers. And it’s the game nights she will miss most of all.

“Getting called out for the national anthem and walking out there holding the little girl’s hand and all these people are here to see you play and seeing all my 11-year olds (that she coaches) there with signs,” Buczkowski said Monday, three days after playing her final professional soccer match. “That will be the biggest thing that I’ll miss.”

There could hardly be a more appropriate answer to give for a player who made being part of game nights famous. After all, when the national anthem plays Sunday at Jordan Field, it will be the first time FC Kansas City ever line up for a competitive match without Buczkowski in the lineup. Before stepping away to focus on physical therapy school Buczkowski started all 71 regular season matches in FC Kansas City history plus five playoff matches.

“She’s done it for years ever since she started,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said after Friday’s match, a scoreless draw against the Chicago Red Stars. “For us she did it for three years, helped us win two championships. She definitely set the bar very high for the younger players coming in.”
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Not only did Buczkowski show up to play every week, she showed up to play well, and more often than not she won.

“She’s a winner, right?” Rory Dames, who coached against her in youth soccer as well as NWSL and had her on his Red Stars team in WPSL Elite, said. “She’s won everywhere she’s been, youth all the way through the pro league. She’s the kind of player you want on your team because she does all the dirty work that nobody else wants to do.”

Paul Riley coached Bcuzkowki for two seasons in WPS. “There are players who win, and there are players who don’t win,” he said. “And she’s just a player that wins. Born competitor, born winner.”

Here is a quick rundown of Jen Buczkowski as a winner. At Notre Dame she was part of the national championship team in 2004 and national runner-up in 2006.

(She played the 2006 national championship game with a sprained MCL, an injury she said would have likely kept her out of a regular season match. Buczkowski said that is the only time she can remember coming close to missing a game through injury at any level of her soccer career.)

At the youth national level she was part of the 2005 Nordic Cup winning U-21 side when, not surprisingly, she played every minute of the tournament. As a professional she played seven seasons before this one, reaching the playoffs every time with three championships from six finals.

“She’s one of those players that I always felt, even during the recruiting process, was underappreciated in terms of what she brings to teams,” Randy Waldrum, who recruited her to and coached her at Notre Dame, said. “Every team she’s been on in her history has been successful. She’s just got this unbelievably incredible, competitive spirit about her. She doesn’t get flustered. You don’t see the emotion on her. But she’s highly, highly motivated.”

Waldrum recalled days on the training field when Buczkowski would get fouled by teammates and he would intentionally let the play carry on instead of blowing his whistle. Inevitably it was only a matter of time before “Bucz” as she was already known, would find a way to stick it back at the offending player.

“You could just see inside her getting really pissed off and you knew it was coming,” Waldrum said. “It was just a matter of when she was going to go back and break that player or send her flying. She wouldn’t say anything, but kind of under her breath you knew she was waiting for that next opportunity.

“A lot of people don’t take her that way because she looks to be very easy going. But deep down, underneath all the layers she was a really, highly competitive player.”

Waldrum said he believed in college that Buczkowski was good enough for the next level if she committed to taking care of her body—which clearly she did. When he got the Dash job he made inquiries to FCKC as to Buczkowski’s availability in a trade. It went nowhere. “Vlatko and Huw (Williams, general manager) were having none of it.”
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Buczkowski graduated from Notre Dame during the wilderness period for women’s soccer between the end of WUSA and the start of WPS. When the latter got off the ground in 2009 Sky Blue FC made her the 39th overall pick in the general entry draft. She was used accordingly as an extra piece in midfield and sometimes on defense. And then came the European Championship that called center back Anita Asante away from the club to play for England. It almost meant nothing when Sky Blue lost the final games of the season to the Washington Freedom. But the next day the Breakers squandered their opportunity, losing to the Los Angeles Sol and gifting Sky Blue a playoff berth.

“The level of the league was pretty high,” Buczkowski said. “I didn’t see too many minutes. When I did play I was more of a holding mid and just kind of going in the last couple of minutes of a game to disrupt things or to keep things clean if we were winning. But (Asante) went away and I think all through the playoffs I was playing center back next to Christie Rampone.”

The playoffs that year were set up so that the fourth place team had to win three road games in a week to win the championship. That team was Sky Blue and the path began in Washington with St. Louis and Los Angeles down the line if they could produce upsets.

“From there it was like just pack your bags and if we win our first playoff game we’re going to go straight to St. Louis and then if we win that we’re going to go straight to Los Angeles. So we literally packed our bags for a week.”

Sky Blue won all three games with Buczkowski at central defense to win the WPS Championship. But that was hardly the oddest thing about the championship. The team’s first coach, Ian Sawyers, was fired in May for inappropriate contact. His replacement, Kelly Lindsey, abruptly walked off the job just as a practice was starting and with two games to go in the season. Christie Rampone, who would be Buczkowski’s center back partner in the playoff run, took over as player-coach. She was also pregnant, a fact she hid from her teammates until refusing to take celebratory champagne after the final.

“That whole year was pretty crazy.”
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Asante came back for 2010 rendering Buczkowski an extra player again. So Sky Blue exposed her in the expansion draft. The Philadelphia Independence made her the third pick. (They also picked Nikki Krzysik at No. 5 who was on FC Kansas City’s 2014 championship team; the Atlanta Beat picked Leigh Ann Robinson No. 1. She was on FC Kansas City from 2013-2015.)

“We never thought of bringing her in to the center back position. We wanted her to play holding mid,” Riley, who coached the Independence, said. “It’s really hard to get a player like that.”

Riley added that the playoff run and particularly the final, is what opened his and Independence general manager Terry Foley’s eyes to what Buczkowski could become. Six years later he is still amazed she was available in what was essentially a draft of the least wanted players in the league.

“The great thing about that team was I was coaching a bunch of misfits basically that nobody wanted, and Bucz was one of them,” he said. “I must have coached thousands of players and kids over the years. She is absolutely top five all-time.”

The Independence played two seasons and reached the WPS final both times.

Buczkowski said going to Philadelphia and playing for Riley represented a turning point in her career. “A lot of who I became and the player that I am today, I owe a lot of that to Paul and the confidence he showed in me. He kind of shaped me into this role of the player that I am. At Notre Dame I played more of attacking spot. It wasn’t really until I got in with Paul in Philly that I was a true defensive midfielder.

“He always said you’re going to be this fierce warrior. He had this thing that you’re either a warrior or a wizard and you can’t be both. It’s kind of who I became.”
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After two seasons in Philadelphia the team dissolved along with WPS. Buczkowski spent 2012 playing for the Chicago Red Stars entry in WPSL Elite. They went to the final and were a Toni Pressley 40-yard blast at the stroke of full-time from winning the title before going down in penalties. NWSL was announced soon thereafter and Buczkowski immediately became one of the most coveted players. So how did she end up in Kansas City? By all accounts, FCKC were the red-headed stepchild among the founding clubs. With their corny “Blues” moniker, an unknown ownership group and a foreign coach who made his bones at the indoor game, FC Kansas City started with little to no Q-rating.

Buczkowski thought about staying in Chicago where she is from. But the Red Stars had Shannon Boxx and Keelin Winters and it likely was never going to be a good fit. And Riley was behind the scenes pulling some strings for FC Kansas City.

“Kansas City was close and it was something new I was kind of leaning towards that,” she said. “Leigh Ann (Robinson) and Sinead (Farrelly) were also talking about going there and I played with them in Philadelphia. And Paul was pretty involved with helping Kansas City form their team that year. He kind of suggested it and we all went with our gut. It was one of those things where you really didn’t know too much about it. It turned out to be a really good decision.”

Early on though, Buczkowski wasn’t so sure. Not when pre-season two-a-days meant afternoons spent running around a track to build fitness. Riley is known as a fitness fanatic, but Andonovski was taking things to a new level.

“Paul definitely did fitness but we would run maybe 10 or 15 minutes and do crazy fitness drills and then we would get on the field. In Kansas City there were literally afternoons we just went to the track. Were we on the soccer team or were we on the track team? We were looking at each other like ‘what did we get ourselves into’ all we were doing is running. We were all kind of freaking out. But even in those first games that fitness definitely helped. You could tell that we were a really fit team. And Vlatko eventually got that possession style of play and kind of started to show his tactical abilities. Through that year we slowly gained confidence. The team that no one knew anything about and didn’t think was really any good, we started to prove ourselves.”

The ultimate proof came in FC Kansas City being the only team to reach the playoffs in each of the first three NWSL seasons, the last two of which culminated with NWSL Championships. And Andonovski has backed off in terms of spending preseason afternoons at a track.
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There was a lot of love for Jen Buczkowski at her final home match (photo courtesy KC Blue Crew)

There was a lot of love for Jen Buczkowski at her final home match (photo courtesy KC Blue Crew)

Now 31, Buczkowski is looking for something a bit more stable financially than NWSL and she wants to get her next career—in physical therapy—off the ground. The first part won’t come immediately as she will have to get by on coaching income during three years of school. She will do it all in Kansas City where she has laid down roots. Philadelphia, she said, made her as a player. Kansas City made her as a person.

If there is one thing she did not do as a soccer player, it is to get a chance to represent her country at the senior level. Though she was often recognized by insiders as among the best players at her position in whatever league was running at the time, at no point was she ever so much as invited to a camp.

“One shining moment would have been to maybe get a cap,” Riley said. “I think she described at least one cap. If she got in the door and played I think the coaches would have realized what a phenomenal player she is to have around.”

So what does Buczkowski think about never getting a call-up?

“Ultimately I think the league should provide an opportunity for players. Not necessarily just myself but anyone who has a successful season should have an opportunity. It’s not specifically about me but you should call a player into a camp or two and see if they have it. If not then you move on to the next person. I think there is a lot of consistency at the national team and the league should provide a little bit more of in-flow of players to see who’s capable of playing at the next level and who’s not. It’s not just about me, I think there’s a lot of other players that probably deserved a chance.

“It’s hard to say because I don’t know what the next level is like. I think I did well enough to maybe deserve an opportunity. Do I think I am good enough to play on the national team? I honestly don’t know. The coaches obviously make their decisions. It is what it is.”

That answer is a microcosm of Jen Buczkowski the player and person, underselling herself but with a subtle message that maybe the system needs some tweaking. And somewhere in that response is the young, Notre Dame midfielder Waldrum spoke about. That player who was just waiting for the opportunity to prove herself, if only it had come along.

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 5 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

FRIDAY
Sky Blue FC – 1,275
FC Kansas City – 2,217

SATURDAY
Washington Spirit – 3,545
Orlando Pride – 7,841
Seattle Reign FC – 4,631

WEEK 5 TOTAL: 19,509
WEEK 5 AVERAGE: 3,902

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,073 (1 game)
2015 average: 15,639
thru 1 game: 13,386
LAULETTA: Home schedule resumes this weekend so we’ll see where the trends take us.

2. Orlando Pride — 13,152 (3 games)
LAULETTA: I almost went on record predicting the second game would be the lowest of the season and I would have been wrong. But it’s quite a day when 7,841 is the lowest number of the season and we get to complain about it.

3. Houston Dash – 6,261 (2 games)
2015 average: 6,413
thru 2 games: 5,099
LAULETTA: Solid opening two matches and the team is fun to watch.

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,234 (3 games)
2015 average: 4,060
thru 3 games: 2,571
LAULETTA: Best attendance story of 2016. The Reign now lead the non-MLS teams, are dominating last year’s pace and have seen their season ticket base grow exponentially.

5. FC Kansas City – 4,136 (4 games)
2015 average: 3,091
thru 4 games: 3,599
LAULETTA: It’s a shame more folks didn’t turn out for Jen Buczkowski’s last game but it was the fourth home game in five weeks and on a Friday night. They could probably use a little breathing room.

6. Washington Spirit – 3,819 (3 games)
2015 average: 4,087
thru 3 games – 3,583
LAULETTA: They will need a big summer jump to finish 2016 ahead of 2015 but the early numbers being up is encouraging and the crowds have seemed lively.

7. Boston Breakers – 3,688 (3 games)
2015 average: 2,863
thru 3 games: 2,302
LAULETTA: There are several reasons to be impressed, especially with the 3,622 for the Red Stars match. It was the third straight home game and came right after the Thorns and the team is neither performing nor scoring. Still think the fan base in Boston is NWSL’s diamond in the rough.

8. Western New York Flash – 3,615 (1 game)
2015 average: 2,860
thru 1 game: 1,873
LAULETTA: Encouraging opener despite the poor weather.

9. Chicago Red Stars – 3,277 (2 games)
2015 average: 4,210
thru 2 games: 2,252
LAULETTA: Sales are double what they were compared to a year ago.

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,699 (3 games)
2015 average: 2,189
thru 3 games: 1,419
LAULETTA: Weather killed the walk-up crowd last weekend but club remains ahead of last season’s pace

SEASON AVERAGE: 5,403
2015 Average: 5,046

Free Kicks

Direct

-Jen Buczkowski’s stream will end at 71 straight starts plus five more in the playoffs. Christine Nairn stands to inherit the top active stream. Saturday night was Nairn’s 44th straight regular season appearance.

-Lianne Sanderson returned to England earlier this week for a meeting with British Prime Minister, David Cameron. She will return in time to travel with the Pride for Friday’s match in Houston.

-The Red Stars joined Sky Blue FC and FC Kansas City as the only teams to record four straight clean sheets. They have not conceded a goal in 396 minutes. Sky Blue holds the record having kept opponents of the board for 435 minutes between May 11 and June 1, 2013.

-Alyssa Naeher has been in goal for all four shutouts. The league record is six by Nicole Barnhart.

-On the flipside the Breakers extended league records by losing their first five games of the season and being shutout in all five. Including last season, they are the first team ever to be blanked in six consecutive matches. Their minute streak is at 542 minutes. The league record is 543 by the Washington Spirit. Because of the way soccer math works the Breakers will tie that mark as soon as Sunday’s match kicks off and break it after one minute goes by. The Spirit streak, set in 2013, ended against FC Kansas City.

-Sky Blue released Caroline Casey to make room for Erin Nayler, who dressed as the backup on Friday.

-Paul Riley said he has not decided on who will play central defense with Abby Erceg suspended. Alanna Kennedy and Courtney Niemiec are among the candidates to partner Abby Dahlkemper.

Indirect

–Here is my Player of the Week ballot:
1) Alyssa Naeher – made several impressive saves to earn her fourth straight clean sheet and help the Red Stars to a scoreless draw against FC Kansas City; 2) Christine Nairn – A force in midfield for the Spirit in their 1-0 victory over the Dash; 3) Desiree Scott – Broke up numerous Red Stars attacks in her best performance of the season, something the Blues will need more of going forward.

Also considered: Lydia Williams was hung out to dry of the Spirit goal and made a series of wonderful saves in the second half to keep the Dash in touch with the match; Kim Little was her usual, wonderful self for the Reign and looked ready to find a winner before time expired on her.

-I’ll let you folks have your say about the referees down in the comment section. But I will say that Abby Ercegg was sent off for reasons that are beyond me. Neither of her yellow cards were even close to bookable offenses.

-Erica Skroski has been rock solid in the back for Sky Blue. She has a nose for the ball and a calmness that cannot be taught. It looks like she was a 3rd round steal and has to be in the discussion of the rest rookies over the first quarter of the season.

-With Erin McLeod out, Canada coach John Herdman has to be pleased with the way Stephanie Labbe and Sabrina D’Angelo are playing. Look for Labbe to start in Rio, but more importantly they are both gaining invaluable experience and thriving in it.

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