There's Only One Rachel Buehler
The rugged U.S. defender has quickly earned the respect of teammates on and off the field with a combination of work ethic and ethics that would make any parent, coach or teammate proud. And unlike Ferris Bueller, this Buehler rarely takes a day off.
March 2, 2009
Spend some time with U.S. defender Rachel Buehler – the person and the player – and you will quickly learn two things about her. First, she is one of the kindest, sweetest, most caring, and friendliest people you will ever meet. Second, she will kick the living heck out of you on the soccer field.
Buehler’s overall ball-winning, powerful headers and sledge-hammer tackles are stuff of national team lore, so much so that her play has spawned a new word for the team lexicon: Buehlered.
Used in a sentence, it goes something like this:
Player A: “Whoa, nice gash on your ankle.”
Player B (with a sigh): “Yeah, I got Buehlered.”
However, before you start thinking that Buehler is a dirty player, she’s not. She’s just the embodiment of the phrase “hard,” which describes a player who gets stuck in on every 50-50 ball that comes her way.
That said, Buehler is no Jekyll and Hyde. She is very aware of the duality that is the sweet Rachel and the one who, well, “Buehlers” people.
“I’ll tackle someone pretty hard, but I’ll still feel bad if I hurt them,” said the 23-year native of the beautiful coastal community Del Mar, Calif., pretty much summing up her essence.
Buehler credits her upbringing for developing of her toughness and her empathy. She grew up in a neighborhood of mostly boys, and was the youngest and only girl in a play group that reveled in the game “Slushball,” an amalgam of rugby, football and just plain craziness, where one player grabbed the ball and ran for their life until they were gang-tackled by the others.
“I was a little tomboy,” she said. “And the boys didn’t take it easy on me. I got pretty beat up, but I didn’t back down either. I think that made it normal for me to be so aggressive and enjoy tackling. On the field, I think it’s kind of an instinct for me to tackle. I don’t really ever think about it. I think I have good timing and I can read the flight of the ball well.”
U.S. teammate Angie Woznuk has known Buehler since both were around 10 years old. Woznuk has played with and against her for more than a decade, in youth club, college, youth National Teams and now the senior side. According to Woznuk, the rough and tumble Rachel started early on.
“She’s always been that way,” said Woznuk, who like Buehler is a San Diego native. “I can remember vividly my first encounter with her. We were 10 years old and she played for the Del Mar Sharks and I played for the Crusaders. I remember I was playing in the center midfield with a girl named Katie McIntosh who was huge for 10 years old. I was tiny back then. When we played the Sharks, Buehler was such an animal that I made Katie mark her. On a goal kick, I saw Rachel literally crawl up Katie’s back to win the ball. I was terrified of her.”
Despite all the bumps and bruises Buehler has administered to friends and foes alike over the years, you would be hard-pressed to find someone with a negative thing to say about her. She’s one of those positive people that everyone loves as a teammate, perhaps making the perfect combination of combatant and sportswoman.
There is a story about Georgia football legend Herschel Walker, who would run over six guys on the way to the end zone during a high school game, then go back and help them all up, telling them in all seriousness and with charm, “I’ll be right back.” There is definitely a little Herschel in Buehler.
“I always strive to be a good person,” said the Stanford graduate, an excellent student and pre-med major who scored very well on the MCATs before deciding to try this professional soccer thing for a while. “Naturally, I’m just a good natured, positive person. I just rarely have negative thoughts. If I do, I try to find the positive, and always be responsible and helpful and caring towards others as I can be. That was how I was brought up. I got that from my family, my mom especially. The golden rule was big at our house. She told us, ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’”
Unfortunately for opponents, that’s awfully difficult to do to Buehler, whose overall strength and powerhouse legs make her the odds-on favorite to leave every confrontation with the ball. Her fearlessness into the tackle has even earned her one of the best nicknames in U.S. National Team history: The Buehldozer.
“I just enjoy getting stuck in,” she said. “You just kind of get an adrenalin rush and feel like you are giving everything you have. I play with all my heart and when you really get stuck in like that you feel like you are giving everything to game and your team and you are not holding back at all.”
It’s that mentality that has gotten Buehler into a bit of trouble earlier in her national team career. During one of her first training camps, she tackled U.S. legend Kristine Lilly from behind and got an earful from the U.S. coaches.
“That was a horrible moment in my life,” admitted Buehler. “I obviously was not trying to hurt her, and she was fine. But it was one of my first times with the national team, and it’s Kristine Lilly, and I am trying my very best. Obviously, I was not trying to take out Kristine Lilly, that would be ridiculous, but at that moment, I wanted to cry.”
Since then, she has learned to channel her aggression more efficiently, an important lesson on the highest levels where opponents are savvy enough to use a defender’s momentum against her.
“I’ve become more controlled, I think,” said Buehler. “I am better at decision-making and I understand better when I shouldn’t tackle. You don’t always want to go so hard, especially if you are in the box, or if you might get beat. I’d say I’ve refined my game a bit.”
She also knows that she would never want to move away from her trademark style as its one of the main reasons for her success.
“Everyone here [with the national team] has something special that makes them a little different,” said Buehler. “I think winning balls is one of my strengths and it definitely helped me reach this level. I’ve improved a lot in a bunch of areas, but that definitely helped me get noticed and get this opportunity.”
The Algarve Cup represents Buehler’s one-year anniversary on the full U.S. National Team as she earned her first cap in Portugal in 2008. While it took seven years of playing for the U.S. Youth National Teams for her to break into the senior side, when she did, she stuck, playing well enough over the next few months to earn a spot on the gold medal-winning 2008 Olympic Team.
Buehler, who has come back from two ACL surgeries, was a member of U.S. team that won the 2002 FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Cup in Canada as well as the USA’s third-place side at the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup in Thailand. She also has played in three Nordic Cups for the U.S. U-23 Women’s National Team.
On the U.S. youth teams, Buehler’s toughness was legendary.
During her first Nordic Cup in 2005, she broke her nose five minutes after coming on at halftime in the USA’s second match, a 4-0 win over Denmark. The U.S. Soccer match report from that game contained this line:
“The USA did suffer some bad news as defender Rachel Buehler broke her nose just minutes after coming on at halftime and is questionable for the Germany match.” Yeah, right.
Trainers fashioned a make-shift protective mask for her, but she didn’t like it. She warmed up in it before the third game, then chucked it to the sideline and played every minute of the final two matches in victories over Germany and Norway.
During a U-19 FIFA Women’s World Cup game in Thailand, she won a ball by jumping over a player, then tumbled to the ground. The ball was sitting a few yards from her head, so Buehler worm-wiggled her way on the ground and lunged to head the ball from a totally prone position to a nearby midfielder.
While Buehler plays like a bull and perhaps looks a bit unorthodox on the field, she has a remarkably soft touch on the ball and in fact won a team soccer tennis tournament during one of her first training camps. She is also one of the USA’s most professional players as far as taking care of her body, warming up well in advance of every training session and game, sometimes on an elliptical machine or exercise bike.
It’s this consistency as a quality person and a dedicated, hard-working player that has certainly endeared her to her teammates.
“Rachel has always been the easiest person to be around,” added Woznuk, who played many years with Buehler on the San Diego Surf youth teams. “I feel so comfortable talking to her about anything. In the 10 years I’ve known her, I’ve never heard her say a bad thing about anyone. She truly is a great person. Really, who is nicer than Buehler? Nobody.”
And really, who wants to get between Buehler and the ball? Nobody.