Playing for Notre Dame & the Holding Midfielder Role

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Jen Buczkowski is a holding midfielder for FC Kansas City in the NWSL. She previously played for Philadelphia Independence and Sky Blue FC. As a college player at Notre Dame she won a national championship and set the record for 103 career games played, scoring 20 goals and three times being an NSCAA All-American. Jen played for the US National Team at U19, U21 and U23, and has coached at both college and club levels. 

How did your college recruiting process go? How did you get recognized?

Like most people I got recognized through my club team. I grew up playing in Chicago and our team would travel to tournaments around the country – in Arizona, Washington D.C., Long Island, and so on. College coaches saw us at those events. I am coaching now and have seen how the system has changed recently – when I was playing I did ODP (Olympic Development Program) which doesn’t seem to be as big any more. The more competitive girls play in the MRL (Midwest Regional League) now, which is different. For the most part coaches contacted me first. I would reach out and let them know that I would be playing in a tournament and if they were interested they would respond.

When you received offers, how did you decide which one to take?

I went on a couple of unofficial visits – to Virginia, Santa Clara and the University of Illinois, and then one official visit to Notre Dame. When I got there I knew I wanted to be there. Being from Chicago it was only two hours away, which was an influence.

Was there a significant difference in playing level when you got there?

Playing at the college level you get some of the best girls from across the country. Two of the girls from my club team also went to Notre Dame, so that was a huge help having people I already knew. Adjusting to the level in the freshman year having to play against seniors and juniors and talented freshmen from across the country was a big step up. I’m pretty organized and diligent when it comes to getting work done, so was able to fit the schedule in with the school work I had. When you get into that environment you want to do well on the soccer side, so your focus is more on that, but you make time for work and the social side – going out and meeting people. If you work hard you can find a way to fit it all in.

Houston Dash’s Randy Waldrum was your coach at the time. How involved was he and what did the structure of your seasons look like?

Randy ran everything. His son Ben Waldrum [now at FC Dallas]was the assistant, who started when I came in as a freshman. Randy ran training and film sessions and Ben was really starting off and learning everything. We were working to an ultimate goal of winning the conference tournament and then the national tournament at the end of the season. Our training was planned around that so we built from game to game and didn’t want to peak too early. The first few games we learned how to play with the new freshman and the system we were in, although we played the same formation every year. A lot of the routine from week to week was very similar because you play games on Friday and Sunday, then have Monday as a recovery day. Tuesday was a harder day of practice, Wednesday had a fitness element and Thursday was more of a walkthrough for the game the next day. It is a long season and playing two games every week limited the time we had for training, so our goal was to build for the tournaments.

How much pressure did you feel to perform? Where did it come from?

Playing at Notre Dame there is a history and tradition of winning. Coming in as a freshman you don’t really understand it all until you start to play. In my first year we lost in the second round of the tournament and people were shocked because Notre Dame never does that. As freshmen we didn’t know any different, except that we wanted to win. The next year the pressure came from the tradition and the success of the program and you don’t want to be the group that doesn’t do well. Also they recruit a lot of talented players every year, so that brings pressure too. All of it came from the outside for me, but I’m a pretty competitive person and always want to win so I don’t feel like the pressure hurt me.

Do you feel like your game improved during college? Which aspects of it?

Really it was the bigger picture parts to the game – the ability to keep the ball when you are winning 1-0 when there are only a few minutes left. I don’t think I went to Notre Dame and learned to become a better passer – that’s something you already have when you get there. It’s more about tactical awareness, learning different systems and playing against different teams.

Do you feel like you got the full university experience, or did you lose anything from being part of the soccer team?

For me personally my priority was to go there and play soccer. Obviously school was important but by the time we got to Wednesday each week I was thinking about wanting to win the game on Friday, so I wouldn’t go out, so maybe your social life takes a bit of a hit. We would get to football games – usually left by halftime though. I would go back to Notre Dame in a heartbeat if I could, but I wouldn’t change anything about the experience I had.

When did you become a holding midfielder? At what age did you play on teams that even had that position?

Even through Notre Dame I played more of an attacking role. We played in a 4-3-3 and had another girl who was more defensive than I was. It wasn’t until my first year of professional soccer that I took on the defensive midfielder role and it stuck. When I got picked up by Philadelphia in the expansion draft the coach did a great job of helping me develop there and I’ve played it ever since. So partly it was coaches recognizing I could do it, but also my abilities matched the role well.

Which of your skills do you think are most important to playing the position?

I think a lot of people recognize my ability to work really hard, and the defensive midfielder has to be all over the field – getting into tackles and being aggressive. I am willing to do a lot of the dirty work that most other people don’t want to do. When you do get the ball it is about playing simple and connecting the back line with the attacking midfielders, which I do too.

How different is it playing in formations with two holding players instead of one? How else do your tactical responsibilities change in different formations?

Last season we played with two, and we started this season still with two, but the last game we played with one. We are trying new things out, but the World Cup girls just left so I am not sure what we will do in the next game and beyond. When we play with two it allows one of us to get forward a little more as the other one sits in. I don’t think we set it as a rule who is doing which though – it depends more upon where the ball is on the field and who is in a better position to attack in that play. When we play with one it is definitely more of a defensive role as you have to be able to break up the counterattacks.

How do you do position-specific training? Do you build relationships with the other midfielders?

We do a lot of passing patterns. The back line will play the ball around and we’ll get it off them and switch it across, play through the midfield and so on. We do a lot of patterns at practice to find different ways to combine with each other. Our goal in the championship game against Seattle last year was a pattern very similar to something we worked on in training. It just comes naturally in the game, but if you look back you recognize that it is something we worked on.

Is it difficult when one of the players goes off to the World Cup and now you have to build a relationship with someone new in their position?

I think it takes a little bit of time to adjust. When you are used to Lauren Cheney [now Holiday] in your attacking midfielder role, it is hard for someone to fill in those shoes and match it completely. But everyone is at practice together so it’s not like we don’t all know and work with each other – they just might not have the same level of experience. The first two games of our season we didn’t play that great – we created chances but didn’t finish. After that we got into a nice rhythm and things started to click, but now we are back at square one as those girls have gone away.

We’ve talked to other players in the league about how they need to supplement their income to survive as a professional women’s player. Do you have another job?

In the past I have done some part time marketing and graphic design work in the off-season in Chicago. Right now I am coaching and I am back in school too. Unless you’re on the national team you can’t just play soccer at the moment, so a lot of people will work for the six months you are home.

Do you think about the future and what you will be doing in ten years, or do players stay in the here and now?

It depends how old you are. Five years ago I didn’t think about it at all – I just loved life, trained in the morning and went to the pool in the afternoon. Now it’s something I think about a lot. This will be my last year of playing, so I have started putting those steps in place to move forward – starting with going back to school.

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