When Alexander Büttner made his debut for Manchester United in 2012, he was playing alongside several club legends before a crowd of more than 75,000 at Old Trafford. Things could not have gone much better for Büttner, as United went on to win the Premier League title.
Eight years, and four teams, later, Büttner is preparing to perform for the Revolution in much less-welcoming conditions as MLS resumes the season at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex.
And though he will play his first game for the Revolution in an empty stadium, Büttner has retained much of the enthusiasm of the early days of his career.
“For me, it’s like if you’re a soccer player, it doesn’t matter what you win, you always want to win more,” Büttner said. “Whether it’s the Premier League or a cup or MLS. I want to win everything and I will always fight to win games until the end. Of course, the best thing for a player is to win trophies.”
Büttner took a winding road to the Revolution. He was born in Doetinchem, Netherlands, played on Ajax junior teams and with Vitesse Arnhem before earning a 5 million euro transfer fee from Manchester United. Büttner played two seasons with the Red Devils, mostly in a backup role to team captain Patrice Evra at left back. He joined Dynamo Moscow on a 5.5 million euro transfer in 2014, then Anderlecht in Belgium in 2016, returning to Vitesse in 2017.
After Büttner’s contract with Vitesse expired, he joined current Sheffield United midfielder Jack Rodwell for tryout sessions with the Revolution last September.
“He had a good week, made a good impression, showed he’s a good person,” Revolution assistant coach Dave van den Bergh said of Büttner. “He enjoyed himself and, fortunately, he was interested in coming here.
“He played plenty of games at Manchester United. It was a successful period – they won the Premier League and he played a role in that, so I think it was positive for him. Hopefully, he can use that experience for the benefit of the team.”
Büttner’s soccer journey began in the Rhine region of the Netherlands, near the German border. He grew up in Kleintjeskamp (“Little Camp”), a former trailer park, now a working-class neighborhood. Van den Bergh calls it “a very small, very typical, Dutch town. I don’t think I have a comparison to anything in the US.”
When Büttner was 11 years old, he joined Ajax’s youth program in Amsterdam.
“I was there for six years and I loved it,” Büttner said. “Everyone knows Ajax is one of best youth teams in the world. You do everything with the ball. They teach the tricks and, after training, you have balls with you at home. If you play games, you spend a lot of time with the ball. Small [training] games, you get better with the ball. You play there you become [better].”
There were plenty of role models to follow and Büttner chose the country’s most famous player, Johan Cruyff.
“I think Ajax is Cruyff, like Barcelona is Cruyff, as well,” Büttner said. “For me, he is the best player ever.”
Van den Bergh, who played for Ajax’s first team and in MLS with Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, and the New York Red Bulls, tracked Büttner through contacts.
“He’s from a small town but from a very young age he wanted to be a professional soccer player,” van den Bergh said. “He had a very clear picture of his life and why he wanted to be a pro soccer player. It’s a big sacrifice. The town he’s from, to get to Amsterdam four or five times a week, is not easy. We see that here, what young players have to do just to make it to practice. That mindset, that mentality, shows. He’s a winner and he will do anything to get where he wants to go.”
Büttner was recruited to Manchester United by Alex Ferguson.
“He’s a special man, great coach, great person,” Büttner said. “Everyone knows him as one of the best coaches ever and for me it was an honor to play for Sir Alex. He’s the one who signed me to Man United. It was, for me, amazing that somebody would call me and say he wants to sign me. One of the best coaches in the world wants to sign you, you know you’re doing something good.
“He is the whole package as a coach. He knows how to talk with players and it doesn’t matter if you are a big player or a young player, he treats everyone the same way.”
In Büttner’s first game for the Red Devils, he was named Man of the Match after scoring a goal and setting up current Los Angeles Galaxy forward Chicharito Hernandez for a score in a 4-0 victory over Wigan.
“I remember, I was playing my debut and in the last minute of the first half, I [made] the wrong pass and he was angry with me,” Büttner recalled of Ferguson. “After the game, I had an assist and scored a goal, and he came up and said nice things. And you could see he was trying to help you.”
Büttner had gone from a small town – Doetinchem’s population is less than the capacity of Old Trafford – to the big time.
“Where I’m from, everybody knows each other,” Büttner said. “Everyone comes to visit your place. It’s one big family. It is more difficult to do that in the United States. There are good people here but it is not like in the Netherlands, where everybody knows each other.”
Büttner’s clan is the subject of many of his tattoos, starting with one that spells out “Family” under his left ear. The names of his “girlfriend and my brothers” are on his arms. There are lips, representing a kiss from his mother, and a fist, representing his father.
“Always, when I see my father, he doesn’t give me a hand-[shake],” Büttner said. “But he gives me a fist, like boxing.”
Büttner might be far from home, but he seems to be adjusting, despite going through lockdown.
“For me, it was really easy,” Büttner said of the lockdown period. “I’m not alone here, I’m with my girlfriend. The first day I came here the guys gave me a great welcome and I feel at home straightaway.
“Of course, everywhere is different, everywhere in the world. Everything here is bigger than the Netherlands. Distances. Most places in the Netherlands, you don’t need to get there with an airplane, you go by car or bus. The US, you cannot do that. But for me the people are nice here and everyone tries to help.”
Büttner has remained in contact with former teammates Chicharito and Nani (Orlando City SC), and he expects to compete against several others, as well as Dutch coaches Frank de Boer (Atlanta United) and Jaap Stam (FC Cincinnati).
“Everybody is finally back on the pitch and we are looking really good,” Büttner said. “We train hard every day and look fit. We play some good football and I really enjoy playing with the team.
“To be honest, I don’t see a lot difference between here [and previous teams]. We have everything, a good facility, a good team playing good football. [Manchester United] is one of the highest levels in the world, of course. But with football, every club wants to win and here everything is really professional. Everyone is ready. We’re training hard for it and hopefully we will do well.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.