It's never fun when you can't play. Just ask Edson Buddle. Better yet, just watch him, as his body language tells the story.
The frustration from being sidelined was apparent on a Thursday morning session at Crew Stadium when the 23-year-old striker jogged slow laps around the field. His head swiveled each time he heard commotion from a laugh or an ooh or an aah from the ongoing keep-away games going on. On this day, he at least has a partner in veteran defender Steven Herdsman, but on most days it's just he and trainer Craig Devine.
That certain angst one gets from not playing got even worse two days later when he was forced to stay on the substitutes bench while his teammates were trying to get the winning goal against the Kansas City Wizards in a match that ended in a 2-2 deadlock. It's one thing to miss another match, as Buddle has been forced to sit out four of the team's 10 matches and only make four starts in such time, but another situation entirely different when the national team is in town and Bruce Arena is in attendance.
"At least my mom was here," said Buddle. "That helped because it took my mind off the situation a bit. You always want to play in front of Bruce Arena, but I know they'll be other chances for me to do that. Right now, I just have to take care of myself. It's hard, but it's what I have to do."
In short, it hasn't been a fun season.
"Mentally, it's very tough," he said. "You know you're coming to training where you won't be doing all the same stuff as your teammates. You try to stay focused, but it gets kind of boring, especially during the longer runs when you're by yourself running around the same field every day. It's important to come in with the right attitude, so I try and pump myself up for it every day."
Buddle's string of injuries started in December when he was training with the under-23 U.S. national team out at The Home Depot Center and he tweaked his ankle. It continued a month later when he was with the U-23s in Mexico. Before the Olympic qualifying tournament ever begun, Buddle was forced to come home and be replaced by Nate Jaqua due to Achilles tendonitis. It was an injury that he still has no idea when it happened, whether it was in the run of play or during an exercise routine.
"I think it was the tape job, really," he said. "It was so tight on my Achilles, so I just played through it. After two days, it was irritating me so badly I couldn't get go."
Rehabbing such an injury is no walk in the park. It takes patience. Even on days when it felt okay, Buddle was limited to stretching and a mix of jogging and agility exercises, which lasted right through the team's preseason.
"It took about two-and-a-half months," said Buddle, who says his health hasn't been at 100 percent for six months. "When it was starting to feel better, I got hurt again. Right now it's my quad. It happened back to back."
It's on the same right leg as his Achilles injury, which is no coincidence. That's why the Crew coaching and training staff have decided to take extra precaution in getting back one of their best players.
"We're going to be very careful with Edson," said head coach Greg Andrulis. "When he comes back, we want him to be stronger than ever, not just able to play through pain."
To get to such a level, he's been pushed by Devine each day.
"He's working hard right now," said the Crew's trainer. "He may not be in instructional practice, but he's pushing himself as far as getting his fitness back. He understands the situation and is doing everything he possibly can."
That doesn't mean it's been easy. His successive injuries have prevented him from finally having a definitive starting role next to Jeff Cunningham up top now that Brian McBride is playing for Fulham in the English Premier League, and from getting a potential call-up for any of the national team camps this past winter and spring. Luckily for Buddle, he's been around oft-injured teammates over the years, including one in particular whose patience and work ethic to get back healthy stuck with him.
"I watched Brian McBride get hurt so many times," he said. "And he always bounced right back from his injuries no matter how bad it was. I guess it is part of being a forward."
McBride's name is often mentioned when talking about Buddle. The two are different sort of players, but they share the same target striker role. Since the New Rochelle, N.Y., native burst onto the scene as a Project-40 draftee three years ago, he's been looked upon as the heir apparent to McBride in both Columbus and with the U.S. national team.
"When healthy, Edson is a quality player," said Andrulis. "He makes us a better team, and he'd make any team in this league a better team."
Columbus is in the midst of a seven-game unbeaten streak right now, but they've scored only 11 goals in 10 matches, which is second worst in MLS next to Colorado's woeful 6 goals on the season. A scorer like Buddle, who has found the back of the net 19 times over the past two seasons, would help matter greatly, as well as give his side an element up front that many teams do not have.
"I've been playing with him since I was young, so I could go on and on about all the brilliant things he can do," said Kyle Martino, who has played with Buddle on various youth national and regional teams since the two were teenagers. "He has size and power, yet has the touch you're used to seeing in tiny, little No. 10s. He's just so comfortable on the ball. He can take balls played in to him down so well, and then use his strength to hold defenders off while the rest of us in the attack can run into spaces for him to use us.
"It's disheartening to see him on the sideline. I've been there, and I know it's not fun, especially when he knows we need him."
When exactly Buddle makes back onto the field is anyone's guess. Andrulis said it might be three or four games. But, as is usually the case with athletes, Buddle thinks it could be sooner.
"I think I could push for this week, which I'm looking forward to," said Buddle about the team's road trip to D.C. "If not, I'll be all right next week for sure."
When he does make it back onto the field, he'll not only have his eye on helping the Crew make the playoffs, but also on getting back into the national team mix, which he experienced for the first time last season with an appearance against Venezuela in March 2003.
"I hope I get a chance to help out in (World Cup) qualifying," he said. "I definitely believe I could help the United States."
Four quick ones
Questions for MetroStars midfielder Michael Bradley
Smartest advice you've ever received from a coach: "Don't ever waste a chance to get better."
Most underrated player on your team: Jeff Parke.
Most underrated player in MLS that's not on your team: Jesse Marsch, Chicago Fire.
Favorite web site: ESPN.com
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.