USA's Chris Wondolowski wore a wide grin when he walked off the pitch in Portland last week after the CONCACAF Gold Cup opener against Belize, the match ball tucked under his arm. The home fans saluted him and shouted their praises, and team-mate and legend Landon Donovan put a congratulatory arm around him. Wondolowski had just scored his first hat-trick for his country.
It was a shining moment for the striker, and his name was spelled wrong on his jersey.
“I thought it was hilarious,” he told FIFA.com about the mix-up that saw the US kit man add an extra ‘w’ to Wond(w)lowski’s jersey before the game. “As long as I have a number on my back, they can spell it any way they want to,” he added.
He is known simply as Wondo by fans of San Jose Earthquakes, for whom he scored 27 times last term, more than Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, to finish as Major League Soccer's leading marksman. Wondolowski is the club’s all-time top scorer and an MLS all-star for the last four seasons, but he is still considered an unlikely inclusion in the regular national team set-up, not fast enough or strong enough to dislodge overseas stars like Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey.
I joked with him and I said, ‘I’m a little superstitious and I scored three goals with that extra ‘w’, so you have to leave it in there.’
That may be true, but his five goals in two wins over Belize (6-1) and Cuba (4-1) make him not only leading marksman of the CONCACAF Gold Cup 2013 after two games, but the top-scoring American in the tournament's history. Wondolowski’s name is known now, and his performances are not going unnoticed by coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
As for that US kit man, who might have been the target of a dressing down if he’d made his mistake with another name, a bigger name, Wondo didn’t exactly let him off easy. “I joked with him and I said, ‘I’m a little superstitious and I scored three goals with that extra ‘w’, so you have to leave it in there’,” said Wondolowski with a laugh. “I was just giving him a hard time, but what he did was he sewed the extra ‘W’ on the inside of the shirt for me and he said he’ll keep doing it for the rest of the tournament.”
Wondolowski is humble, enthusiastic, and he’s taken the hard road to his red, white and blue jersey. The 30-year-old is philosophical about the chance he’s getting at the Gold Cup. Coming through the second tier of USA’s university system, he was drafted into the MLS, to little fanfare, in 2005. He spent a number of seasons in the obscurity of its reserve league before his scoring talents and hard work took root in 2010. He’s never looked back, becoming one of the most consistent performers in the American top-flight.
“I’m not the fastest, I’m not the strongest and I’m not the most technical player,” he said. “So I need to read the game, read the defenders and try to anticipate what they’re going to do.”
Wondolowski in awe of Donovan IQ
It’s a skill Wondo is using to great effect as a cobbled-together USA side chase their first Gold Cup crown since 2007. Klinsmann has taken the opportunity to offer a chance to so-called fringe players like Wondolowski, diminutive goalkeeper Nick Rimando and Brek Shea, while also welcoming back convalescing injury cases like Oguchi Onyewu and Stuart Holden.
Superstar playmaker Donovan, earning his place back after a self-imposed sabbatical from football, is also in the team, and he’s forming a wonderful understanding with Wondolowski. The two are an unlikely pair, Wondo the eager striver and Donovan the grown-up golden child, the last best hope.
“His soccer IQ is the highest I’ve ever seen,” said Wondolowski of Donovan, who has provided him countless passes here at the CONCACAF cup of nations. “To see how he reads the game and plays the game is just amazing.”
While Wondolowski may still have a way to go before he dislodges an established striker from the USA’s ‘A’ team, he’s showing Klinsmann that he’ll work harder than anyone to create space, that he’s a humble defender of the American colours, and that, most importantly, he can score goals.
“I feel composed, I feel confident right now at this level,” said Wondo, who had only a handful appearances for the national team before this Gold Cup. “I’m surrounded by all these great players and they’re finding me with incredible passes. All I have to do is put them in the net, and that’s the easy part!”
It’s a debatable point, but certainly Wondolowski, Polish on his father’s side with Native American roots on his mother’s, is feeling the good vibes of free-flowing goals.
“I’m like any other striker: when the goals are coming, I feel good,” he said after failing to find the net in the final group game against Costa Rica. “It helps all the other parts of my game: my passing, my movement, all of it. I’m loose and comfortable.”
Wondolowski is the spearhead of an experimental US team made up of misfits, all of them with something to prove. “We want to win this tournament,” he said, looking ahead to the 21 July quarter-final with El Salvador. “All the players have a chip on their shoulder and they want to show what they can do.”
No matter how you spell it, no one is doing more with his time, and with his chances, than USA’s humble hero Wondo(w)lowski.