By Ridge Mahoney
Whether or not he gets a spot on the plane to Brazil for the World Cup, Chris Wondolowski has proven he is Jurgen Klinsmann’s type of player.
Though he lacks the European pedigree that the U.S. national team coach until recently strongly favored, he’s imbued with many of the same traits. He’s got great balance and timing, which enables him to strike with either foot balls arriving at odd angles and also duel ferociously in the air. He’s perfected the art of peeling away from defenders at the precise instant they lose sight of him to control the ball or deliver it on goal first time. He relies on quickness and cleverness rather than brute strength or raw speed. And he’s the hardest worker on his club team, the San Jose Earthquakes, often staying after the regular training session has ended to refine his goalmouth wiles and techniques.
How did he respond to a rough campaign last year, during which he scored 11 goals after tying the league record with 27 in 2012? “Wondo would be the first one to tell you that he’s had moments of frustration this year, because he puts high expectations on himself,” said Earthquakes head coach Mark Watson last October. “But he did the right things and responded the right way and just got back to work. He does hours and hours of finishing at the end of training.
“You wonder how he scores so many goals? It’s because he has great movement and great qualities in the box. He’s a great finisher because of ability but also hard work. He spends a lot of time on it.”
He is the antithesis of a prima-donna goalscorer who awaits chances to arrive and does little else. If anything, he takes too much responsibility, and you can count on him blaming himself for the chances he missed if the game result isn’t the right one. His look of despondence after a 3-1 home loss to the Galaxy -- during which he missed a close-range shot that would have tied the game -- in the 2012 MLS playoffs was entirely self-directed.
Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders was on the ground and all Wondolowski had to do was tap it over him. He couldn’t put it away. “I thought I had to lift it a little bit because Josh was there, but I just sent it way over,” Wondolowski said. “Pretty bad.”
The Quakes went out on aggregate, 3-2, and the disappointment sharply increased as the Galaxy rolled to a second straight MLS Cup title. Wondo won the scoring title and the MVP award, and Quakes captured the Supporters’ Shield, but nobody got what they really wanted. His national team career was equally frustrating but in a different way.
Despite his consistent league scoring in recent years -- he preceded the 11-goal and 27-goal seasons by hitting a combined 34 goals in 2009 and 2010 -- success at national team level had also eluded him. A fluffed chance at the 2011 Gold Cup in a group match against Panama left him distraught; ironically, the player he replaced -- defender Clarence Goodson -- had scored the U.S. goal in a 2-1 defeat.
But Wondo may have finally gotten over the hump. After struggling through a barren spell that seemed to constrict his USA career -- no goals and several primo chances squandered in his first nine games -- he’s hit the target nine times in the last 10 matches. He came out of the January camp by scoring both goals in a 2-0 defeat of South Korea, and connected again in the 2-2 tie with Mexico Wednesday night.
Those goals have burnished a bit the reputation of scoring only against the weakest foes and choking in bigger games. He broke out of his U.S. drought by scoring against Guatemala last July in the final tune-up match for the Gold Cup, which he lit up in group play by bagging five in games against minnows Belize and Cuba. But in the group finale, he botched a great chance and though the USA won, 1-0, that specter of failure under pressure returned.
Friendlies are what they are, but there’s no doubt coolly bagging a classic poacher’s goal against Mexico in front of a huge crowd has to erase a bit more of the stigma Wondo can’t score in important games. He wouldn’t be the first goalscorer to light it up in MLS -- as did Taylor Twellman and Jeff Cunningham before him -- without nailing down a national team spot. And Wondo's recent goal spurt may not be enough for Klinsmann to rate him as a necessity against Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
The U.S. forward ranks may be too crowded. The insanely hyped debut of teenager Julian Green has triggered speculation Klinsmann may take him to Brazil as something of a secret weapon. And if Klinsmann classifies Landon Donovan as a forward, there may only be space for Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Aron Johannsson in the forward slots. Green, despite his extreme inexperience, might be first line as a extra forward. (There's also Eddie Johnson, who replaced Wondo up front late in the Gold Cup but sat for the first hour Wednesday night.)
Probably a half-dozen players who have made significant contributions for Klinsmann are on the bubble, and until last July you couldn’t have put Wondolowski in this category. But now he’s melded production to his other attributes. Every team going into a World Cup wants any player who can score, and Wondo does a lot more.
No one is more committed to his teammates and his country and his craft than Wondolowski. He personifies the American spirit of perseverance and persistence, which has taken him from Division II Chico State to 2012 MLS MVP, moved him among the all-time leading MLS scorers -- no one has scored more goals in four consecutive seasons than the 72 he notched from 2010 to 2013 -- and earned him at least a puncher’s chance to make the World Cup roster.