[U.S. SOCCER] A year ago, Chris Wondolowski was preparing for a new MLS season, his second with San Jose, with the same mindset he’s brought to most of his endeavors.
“I’ve always worked hard each year just to get there, and then you have to work just as hard to stay where you are,” he says. “I don’t think any of this has really sunk in yet.”
If it hasn’t sunk in, it's because so much has happened so quickly. In the past 12 months, the man Quakes fans call "Wondo" has shot to prominence, from journeyman striker to MLS Golden Boot winner and MVP finalist to, perhaps, a U.S. debutant Saturday against Chile at Home Depot Center.
“Teams have their hands full with Wondo,” says San Jose coach Frank Yallop, who swung a trade in 2009 to get him from Houston, where he’d failed to hold down a regular spot. “He’s dangerous on the field in every game he plays, so they’ve got to be careful with him.
Wondolowski is one of more than a dozen uncapped players summoned by Coach Bob Bradley in the squad preparing for the first game of 2011, and of that group, is probably the most anxiously watched by fans. His sense of space, his remarkable balance, and his multi-pronged finishing touch earned him a league-best 18 goals last season and propelled San Jose into the second round of the playoffs.
While fans know all too well that prowess in America’s league doesn’t automatically translate to success with America’s team, a guy who knows his way around the penalty area is not only valuable, but fun to watch. A likable, modest, and easygoing persona off the field and intensely predatory instincts on it have brought Wondolowski fame that seemed unattainable while playing at Chico State, a Division II school about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Wondolowski, 27, of his rise through the ranks. “It’s always out there and you always feel like you can accomplish that goal, but coming from a small college it’s not a probable.”
Since coming into the league with Houston in 2005, he’d scored just seven goals in 53 games (including playoffs). Media outlets fed voraciously on his story last year as he battled Edson Buddle for the scoring lead and drove San Jose through the schedule. At one point he scored 10 consecutive goals for the Quakes, a league record.
The Quakes used more than a half-dozen forwards during the 2010 season, but only Wondolowski scored consistently. He played up top, and started some games on the right side of midfield as Yallop juggled combinations and systems. Oftentimes he’d start the game at forward and end up as the right mid, or vice versa.
“No matter where I play him, he’s dangerous,” says Yallop. “You think he’s marked and the defender does, too, but somehow he gets away just as the ball comes to him. It’s amazing.”
At the U.S. camp, he’s been deployed most of the time at forward as Bradley moves the pieces around and teaches his very inexperienced players the nuances of international play. Wondolowski, an avid learner and keen student of the game, is gobbling it up.
“The whole coaching staff has done a good job pointing out things like how to take this angle and make a yard for yourself, how to play at certain pace and when to make decisions,” says Wondolowski. “But the most important message is tells us, ‘You guys are here for a reason. You’ve proved you belong here, so just keep on doing that. Here are the things we think can take you to the next level.’
“They show us the ins and outs of certain runs, how to make them, where to go in certain situations. Those things are really helpful for us at this level. With what I’m learning here I hope I can be even better at finding space in dangerous areas, and how I can get away from defenders or go past them.”
He notes interaction on and off the field with Red Bulls defender Tim Ream -- who he opposed four times in the regular season and playoffs -- and Rapids defender Marvel Wynne – who led a shutout effort that eliminated San Jose during Colorado’s run to the title – as the camp’s more memorable encounters. Bradley is big on team bonding and Wondo, as he does with just about everything, has jumped right in.
“I can see things, little tugs or runs to get away from defenders,” he says. “I definitely try to incorporate those things into my game.”
So forwards grab defenders just as much as defenders grab forwards?
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” he laughs. “But we always get called for it, defenders never do.
“I’ve been able to get to know a lot of the guys, especially a guy like Tim Ream. We played against them four times last season. He’s a tough defender and we’ve had some tough battles, but you see him off the field and he’s a great guy. He’s funny, just an easygoing, good guy.
“Same with Marvell Wynne. He’s absolutely hilarious, which you don’t get on the field because everybody is very serious. But he likes to joke around and have fun, so it’s pretty cool getting to know some of these guys, rather than only seeing them for 90 minutes on the field in tense moments.”
The significance of his first callup might cause some tense moments leading up to kickoff Saturday night. Pressure, he says, won’t be a factor, but there’s no way to be casual about marching onto the field and hearing the national anthem wearing a USA jersey for the first time.
“I’ve always wanted to be here and get a cap,” he says, quietly. “It’s a dream come true, an honor, and I appreciate the opportunity. All I can do is learn as much as I can and play my game.”