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The loneliness of the holding midfielder: A profile of Jen Buczkowski

(Photos: Michael Long)

“We talk about the back four, we talk about the forward line, Vero, but nobody’s mentioned Buczkowski. She must have picked off a hundred balls and I think that’s a credit to [her]. She’s the unheralded hero. No one talks about her. But she’s the one that’s on the team sheet first every week. It’s Buczkowski in the middle of the midfield and then we build the team around her. She’s had a great season. I’d like to mention her because she doesn’t get too many mentions.” – Paul Riley after the Independence’s 2-0 win over magicJack in the WPS Super Semifinal

The unheralded hero

One of the questions I asked Jen Buczkowski on Wednesday night when I talked with her was how many interviews she has gotten to do this season. She laughed and said, “I think this is the first one this year.” I can’t say that I’m very surprised, even though she’s had a terrific season for the Independence, because unless your a holding midfielder in the vein of Mark Van Bommell or Nigel de Jong, the spotlight is rarely going to fall on you.

The impact of the defensive midfielder is hard to measure. In three seasons in the WPS, Buczkowski has a grand total of one assist and no goals.

But that’s not her job.

Intercepting passes, pushing players to play the ball backwards, or simply eliminating a passing lane is what Jen Buczkowski does. It’s not sexy work, but it’s essential to the game plan of the Independence. Without Buczkowski, Vero Boquete would never have the room to operate in the center of the pitch that she does. Leigh Ann Robinson and Estelle Johnson would not have the ability to jump into the attack from their outside back postions if they didn’t know that Buczkowski would be there to cover for them.

Expendable to cornerstone

Jen Buczkowski

When I asked Independence coach Paul Riley during the Women’s World Cup which members of his team that he considered candidates for the USWNT in the future, he singled out rookie Sinead Farrelly, who’s impressive two-way play has already seen her earn significant time with the squad. He also mentioned Tasha Kai, who has regained her form in the shape of 10 goals this season. But then he went on to say, “I don’t know how Buzz isn’t there [in the World Cup] right now. She’s been class for us. I don’t even know how we even got her.”

Riley was referring to the fact that Buczkowski came to Philadalphia via the WPS expansion draft in 2010. She saw limited time in the league’s first season playing for 2009 Champion Sky Blue FC and the team from New Jersey saw the midfielder as expendable, not protecting her in the expansion draft. Riley saw a cornerstone for the Independence and selected the midfielder in the first round with the third overall pick.

Buzzy, as Riley affectionately calls her, has rewarded him with consistency and steadiness in the center of the pitch. Last season, she played in 23 of 24 games, starting in 20. This season she’s played every minute of the Independence’s 18 games. Consistency and versatility have been trademarks of Buczkowski’s career. She never missed a game in her college career while setting the Notre Dame record for career games played with 103, the sixth-most in NCAA history.

Last week’s match up in the central midfield saw the USWNT’s current holding midfielder, magicJack’s Shannon Boxx, head to head with Buczkowski. In what could be seen as a changing of the guard, Boxx spent most of the afternoon chasing after Vero Boquete’s shadow, while Buczkowski found success limiting the balls played into Abby Wambach and Christen Press in the Philadelphia victory.

Success seems to follow

Unofficial league leader in slide tackles.

This is the third year of WPS and the third year that Buczkowski has played in the final. She won the Championship with Sky Blue in 2009, lost last season with Philadelphia and awaits a tough test on Saturday. When I asked her about playing in every one of the league’s championship finals, she downplayed her own role.

“Obviously, I’ve been a little lucky,” Buczkowski said. “It’s not all about one person. It’s about the team…In NJ, it was kind of a shock that made it that far, we were the last team to clinch a playoff spot. ”

But I’ve always been told that good players create their own luck. And the benefit of having a cool-on-the-ball central midfielder cannot be overstated.

The professional level is not the only place where Buczkowski has been part of a winning team. In 2004, her Notre Dame squad won the NCAA Championship in PKs over UCLA. Buczkowski netted her shot in the shootout against current Philadelphia goalkeeper Val Henderson.

“We always joke around about it,” Buczkowski said. “Val always says, ‘Don’t remind me.'”

It should also be noted that current Independence player Danesha Adams played for UCLA in that game, making her penalty in a losing effort.

Last year vs this year

The Independence’s 4-0 drubbing at the hands of FC Gold Pride in last year’s final has not been forgotten by the members of the squad who have remained with the team for 2011. “Unfinished business” has been the motto for the club all season. But there are some big differences going into this year’s final versus last year. The obvious one is that Philadelphia won’t be playing their third game inside of seven days going into the final, having had a full week off since last Saturday’s semi-final.

“I think overall, there’s just a little bit more consistency,” Buczkowski said about what makes the 2011 Independence different from the 2010 version. “Last year I think there were a couple of times we could have clinched a playoff spot and we lost in Chicago, and we lost in Jersey, we could never finish it out…This year we’ve had a lot of solid wins and we’ve had a little more consistency. We’ve been able to win some big games this season…We have that edge now, that confidence to put the game away.”

Philadelphia’s record backs her up. The Independence finished the 2011 season on 36 points, two more than last season, even though they played six fewer games.

In a way, last year’s squad backed into the playoffs. Clinching the third playoff spot, the team had to win tough games against Washington and at Boston just to secure a final berth. This year’s squad stayed in contention for the top spot until the very last day of the regular season, when they were edged out by Western New York. Philadelphia can also count themselves as the only team that defeated the Flash on their home turf in Rochester.

An old friend awaits in the final

Buczkowski’s primary goal in the WPS Final will be to shut down a player she’s quite familiar with. She spent last season clearing out space in the midfield for Caroline Seger to operate. Seger is still running the midfield, but  is now plying her trade in Western New York, being the primary conduit for getting the ball to players like Marta, Christine Sinclair, and Alex Morgan.

Buczkowski said of her former team mate, “If we can deny the delivery of the ball, which comes from [Seger], I think we can shut them down or at least try and control them. If we can limit her touches and her service into the forwards we can maybe pull out a victory.”

If Buczkowski can find a way to contain Seger, and the Independence can control the flow of the game and keep players like Boquete, Kai, and Amy Rodriguez supplied with the ball, Philadelphia will have a great shot at winning on Saturday.

Philadelphia will probably live and die with the play of Veronica Boquete in the final this Saturday. The Spanish playmaker will dictate the service to the strikers and the rate of play for the entire team. But whether or not she can get on the ball will fall on the shoulders of Buczkowski. She’ll have to shut down Seger and deny the ball to WNY’s big three of Marta, Sinclair and Morgan.

Yes, that seems like a lot for one player.

But it’s what Buczkowski has quietly done all season.


  1. Way to show love for the midfield.

  2. Nitpick: They played six fewer games this year than last (18 vs. 24), not eight.

    Great article – defensive-minded players seldom get the attention they deserve.

  3. Tom Walter says:

    Buzz has been a steady highly productive player her entire career. And, she is a exhibits a lot of class.

  4. It might be worth remembering the old New York Cosmos. Yes, they had Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, etc. But they also had Terry Garbett. An English holding/defensive midfielder.

    It is interesting to note that the Cosmos NEVER lost a game that Garbett started.

    Jen is OUR Terry Garbett.

    Rock ’em Cheesesteaks!

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