Something finally clicked. After nearly five years of struggling to make the first-team squads in Major League Soccer, San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski struck goal-scoring gold in 2010 and has never looked back.
While the more well-known attacking duo in Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper of Eastern heavyweights New York Red Bulls have been the focus of late, the so-called Wondo has been quietly racking up the goals in San Jose. The 29-year-old began his professional career at reserve level in MLS, however, in 2010, he made the entire North American top flight finally take notice of his talents.
The California native snapped up top-scoring honours with 18 goals, and went on to prove that triumph wasn’t a fluke as he finished joint-top on goals scored with Canadian international Dwayne de Rosario in 2011. Such triumphs have seen the Quakes talisman garner more and more attention by the day, and even receive his first international call-up at the beginning of last year.
Already sitting on seven goals this season, alongside Henry and Cooper, Wondolowski looks on course to reach even greater heights this campaign. And, in a recent interview with FIFA.com, the striker spoke on the challenges of his modest start in MLS and his expectations moving forward.
Throughout the years, Wondo has shown a kind of motivation that can’t be taught. In fact, at the age of 18, the forward endured plenty of rejection, with some university-level coaches brashly stating he just ‘wasn’t good enough’ for their programmes. “I’ve always had a love and passion for soccer,” said Wondolowski. “I had a belief that I could play, and always wanted to play professionally, but at times you question whether you are good enough if you don’t get the exposure or the opportunity.”
Despite the ongoing trials of trying to get noticed, Wondolowski marched on in his pursuit of a successful career in football. It wasn’t until post-university and a year-long stint with Chico Rooks, a fourth tier side in the National Premier Soccer League of the United States, that Wondolowski was drafted into Major League Soccer.
Brought in to the league as a Supplemental Draft pick in 2005 by Earthquakes, Wondo was given little chance to shine outside of the league’s reserve division - even after a three-year stint with the then expansion-side Houston Dynamo. “Three to four years in the league, even with Houston in '08, I still wasn’t making all the benches,” he recalled. “I wasn’t even in the 18-man roster half the time. That was frustrating at times, but to be honest, I still enjoyed going in everyday.”
A chance for change
A switch back to San Jose in June 2009, however, would forever alter the scope of Wondo’s footballing career. Scoring had become a habit for the front-man in the reserve division, but it wasn’t until Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop gave the forward a prolonged shot among the league’s best that he made a surprising splash.
I try to practice finishing several times a week - to get as many repetitions as I can so when it comes to the game it is just muscle memory and I know what to do then.
Wondolowski, himself, does not credit a defining moment with his sudden success in MLS beyond Yallop’s new-found faith in his abilities. “It just snow-balled,” he said of his breakout year in 2010. “The confidence grew and I really did believe that I could play in this league. I had that belief in prior years, but it was probably just the day in and day out of being able to start, and having the full confidence of coach Yallop that was really the thing that propelled me.”
After collecting the Golden Boot, the forward proved he was not one to rest on his laurels. Known for his tremendous work ethic, Wondo explained he dedicates lots of personal time outside of training to sharpening his eye for goal. “I try to practice finishing several times a week - to get as many repetitions as I can so when it comes to the game it is just muscle memory and I know what to do then."
And while Wondolowski has said he was just trying to prove himself among the MLS elite in years past, he now has loftier goals in mind this season. After leading the league in scoring for two successive campaigns, making up for about 40 per cent of Earthquakes total goals scored during that period, Wondo believes he can match that feat again while also hoping to grab the attention of new USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
More USA dreams
The Californian earned his first international appearance under former manager Bob Bradley, and even played a part on the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup team. “It was a true dream come true,” Wondolowski said of his first cap in a January 2011 friendly against Chile. “I’ve always dreamed of putting on the American jersey - with the flag above your heart - it was something special for me. It was a true honour and something I’ll always remember.
Since Klinsmann’s appointment, though, some MLS-based players have fallen by the wayside to those plying their trade in Europe. But just as he has done in the past, Wondolowski continues to persevere, putting the pressure on himself to earn a regular spot. “If I do get an opportunity, I need to make the most of it. Maybe finish some chances that I’ve had in the past and didn’t finish. I need to finish when I do get them, keep working hard and playing well. I think it’s on me and I just need to prove to him [Klinsmann] that I can play at a high level.”