DAVID SMITH - Monday, May 9, 2011
Having helped Ingolstadt surge through 2011 to assure their place in Germany's 2. Bundesliga, Edson Buddle is learning to appreciate the elation of a successful fight against relegation.
When Buddle signed a long-term contract with Bavarian team at the midway point of their season after a career in MLS, the "Schanzer" looked as though they were headed back down to the German 3. Liga after having just won their promotion in the previous season.
They stood at the league's second-worst team, having taken only 12 points from their first 18 games, which left them deep in the drop zone needing to make up a six-point gap over the second half of the season.
This marked a major turning point for the club, which embarked on run which saw them rack up an impressive 23 points over their next 13 games, placing the previous cellar dwellers as one of the division's best teams based on games played after the turn of the new year.
Having previously spent the entirety of his career on the other side of the Atlantic where promotion and relegation rarely, if ever, figure into professional sports, coming directly into Ingolstadt's delicate situation represented a new kind of pressure which took him some time to fully realize.
"I never really understood it until I got here to Germany," Buddle admits of the spectre of relegation hanging over teams at the bottom of the standings, "but it's something I'll remember and pass on. It's all a learning experience, a part of this culture, everything."
During his years playing stateside, the biggest stress often facing players on clubs outside of the top spots in the division was the late push to reach the MLS Cup playoffs following the regular season.
Buddle had directly experienced this situation, most dramatically during his lone season in New York when the team clinched their place in the 2006 MLS Cup playoffs only in the final game of the season. He does, however, notice a clear difference which gives a relegation dogfight quite a bit more gravity.
"It's similar," he evaluates of the two, "but that thought of going down also puts a lot of pressure on the front office as well."
"If you don't make the playoffs [in MLS] they don't release people from the front office," he continues, "but that's what happens here since there's less money going into the club in a lower league."
Ingolstadt did manage to have their survival secured with three games left on the schedule, with their ultimate salvation coming on the eve of their recent home game against Erzgebirge Aue. While their strong play on the field had put them on the edge of a guaranteed place in the 2. Bundesliga for the 2011-12 season, the ultimate tipping point came the evening before they took the field, as Friday night losses by both Rot-Weiß Oberhausen and VfL Osnabrück mathematically assured they would finish out of the bottom three.
Despite not being together on the field at this jubilant moment, the team was gathered together to watch the pivotal games in the lobby of the hotel where they were spending the night prior to the showdown with Aue.
"I don't know all the teams in the league yet, so I didn't know until we sat in front of the TV that we needed two teams to lose," the 2010 World Cup veteran concedes. But the joy of those around him did rub off on him and will be something he takes forward throughout his years in Europe. "It's something I'm still learning and I saw the happiness and joy of the team and everyone when we clinched."
"I'm happy that the team is successful," he continues. "It would have been a huge disappointment if we got relegated, but we still won games and stayed in the league so it's all positive."
With their position now secured, the team can finally give some thought to the future, which by all accounts is bright for the Bavarian club. The 2010-11 season marked their first to play in the brand-new 15,000 seat Audi-Sportpark. Additionally, a solid fanbase, a respected coach and stable organization along with the support of one of the most successful auto manufacturers in Germany gives the the players several reasons to look toward greater things.
"It would be nice to see this club go up to the [1. Bundesliga]," he considers of the longer team. "The sponsor Audi, is pushing to get new players and with the new coach I think it's a good possibility. I always stay optimistic."
Ingolstadt will still play a huge part in a relegation race which is set to come down to the wire, as they close the season on Sunday when they host Joe Enochs and VfL Osnabrück who are still battling for their spot in the division.