By Ridge Mahoney
The latest chapter of Chris Wondolowski’s rise from suburban soccer to the U.S. national team is still being written, but it won’t require a blockbuster scene or earth-shattering ending to make this story a good one.
Bearing the nickname "Wondo" as do many more illustrious counterparts, primarily in Brazil, he arrived in that country last week as a 31-year-old backup, most likely destined to play off the bench if at all. The greatest player in the history of American soccer, Landon Donovan, just a year older and a veteran of the last three World Cups, is back home in Southern California. Also excluded is Eddie Johnson, whose resume includes the 2006 World Cup and 19 goals in 63 internationals.
So during the national team’s training camp in Northern California last month Wondo spoke with a mixture of elation and humbleness about making the 23-man squad at the expense of others. “He’s a close friend, a close teammate,” said Wondolowski of Donovan, the all-time leading U.S. scorer with 57 goals. “We’ve been through the thick and thin, especially seeing him at practice every day and seeing how much he’s put into it, it’s definitely hard to see him [left behind]. But we have faith in these 23 guys right now.”
When he’d joined 22 other players and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann in a room the night before, Wondolowski still didn’t quite grasp what was going on. “You never know,” he said with a smile. “Even when I counted that there were 23 guys, not until [Klinsmann] said, ‘This is my 23,’ did I have full confidence that I was in it.”
Despite tying the MLS single-season record of 27 goals in 2012 and also racking up tallies of 18, 16, and 11 for San Jose in other years, he seemed doomed to the same fate as former national teamers Taylor Twellman (101 MLS career goals) and Roy Lassiter, who had set the league record of 27 goals in 1996. They were prolific in MLS but couldn’t get a foothold with the national team. Nailing five Gold Cup goals against Belize and Cuba a year ago didn’t much elevate Wondolowski’s status, since he wasted a good opportunity in the third group match against Costa Rica.
Yet he’d done enough to earn a recall to the initial preparation phase last January, which included a shakedown trip to Sao Paulo as well as the traditional camp in Southern California. In a World Cup year, "Camp Cupcake" also serves as a Last Chance Saloon for players on the national team bubble, and after nearly three weeks of training and travel Wondo scored both goals in a 2-0 defeat of South Korea.
He struck in the fourth minute on a rebound, heading from point-blank range to give the USA the lead, and 15 minutes into the second half he connected again on a deflected cross, drilling a first-time shot into the top corner. Both goals epitomized his predatory instincts and clean finishing technique with which he’s torched MLS opponents since being traded from Houston to San Jose in 2009.
“That’s Wondo being Wondo, in the place at the right time,” said U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi “He’s so good at doing that.”
When he scored again two months later in a 2-2 tie with Mexico, he rose from "doubtful" to "maybe" on the U.S. depth chart. On that goal he slid in at the back post to bang home a cross that had been flicked on by Michael Bradley in yet another display of anticipation and execution. Finally he’d found the same scoring touch with the USA that he’d displayed in MLS since a trade from Houston to San Jose in June, 2009.
He’d scored just four goals in 37 games for Houston since being taken by the former Quakes in the 2005 SuperDraft. His career stagnated in Texas despite the Dynamo winning the MLS Cup title the next two seasons (2006, 2007) following the move, yet his spirit never seemed to waver.
“I know Chris has worked oh-so-hard for this opportunity,” said midfielder Brad Davis, a former Dynamo teammate and roommate with the national team, during the national team’s training camp in Northern California last month. “You look where he’s come from; we were playing on the Dynamo together and he wasn’t even starting for our team or really getting an opportunity there. Just a change of environment and how he’s excelled and how he’s kept his mind into it. He’s always been a winner and he’s always worked extremely hard.”
That work ethic impressed Klinsmann, just as it had his coaches and teammates in MLS. He drives himself relentlessly during training, and nobody else on the Quakes stays after practice as often does Wondolowski to take shots or work on other aspects of his game.
“He does hours and hours of finishing at the end of training,” says San Jose head coach Mark Watson, referring to the cumulative overtime Wondolowski puts in during a typical month. “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.”
The Quakes didn’t scout Wondolowski when he played Division II soccer at Chico State, located in a modest city about three hours north of the San Francisco Bay Area. He grew up in Danville, an affluent suburb east of Oakland renowned for its sports but not renowned for producing great soccer players. Yet Quakes general manager John Doyle knew his territory well enough to send out a feeler.
“He came out to a Quakes’ college combine in Danville and John had said, ‘Hey, do you mind taking a look at this guy from Chico State?’” recalls former San Jose head coach Dominic Kinnear, who later moved with the team to Houston along with Wondowlowski. “ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ He came out and did pretty good. We picked him with a pretty late draft pick and the rest is what Chris has done with it.
“Obviously, when you score a bunch of goals, you’re going to get noticed. I don’t think there’s one guy who knows Chris who isn’t happy for him, just because of who he is and how he carries himself. You look at what he’s done and where he comes from. He’s just taken advantage of all the chances thrown his way.”
Wondolowski may be a backup on paper, but that isn’t his mindset. Donovan had said in ESPN's inside look at the national team that he could no longer go 12 days in a row at a high level in practice and was apparently content with coming off the bench. That’s not how Wondolowski, gung-ho to the extreme, sees the world.
“There was a lot of hard work to make the 23, but to be truthfully honest, my work is not done yet,” he said a day after the 23-man list was announced. “I want to push guys, I want to push the starters, I want to be a starter, I want to get time, I want to get minutes. That’s my focus and just try to help the team anyway I can. And if I don’t, just to push those guys and make them better as well.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t surprise me a bit. But I think Coach Klinsmann has a plan and you know he has the 23 guys picked and he feels that we can go down there and make a difference. I have 100 percent faith in these 23 guys and we know that we’re going to come together and have a game plan for Ghana when it comes down to it.”
That game plan probably has Wondolowski on the bench, though he seldom scores for the U.S, in those circumstances. Yet he's on the roster to do a job, either as a catalyst in training or a difference-maker in the game.
Wondolowski and Davis were honored by the Quakes when their current team played at Buck Shaw Stadium a few days after the roster announcement. Kinnear gave his best wishes to the players and Wondo’s family members who were on hand.
“Yeah, I’m happy for him,” said Kinnear. “I saw his dad before the game and gave him a big hug. You appreciate good stories like that.”