“You get older and older and you start to wonder if your chance will ever come,” USA goal-poacher Chris Wondolowski told FIFA.com about his late-in-life climb into the international arena. “I was a late bloomer and there were times when I thought my opportunity had passed.”
While his name does not roll off the tongue, it is one of the 23 that coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s has said will be in his USA squad for Brazil 2014. For the likeable and unlikely Wondo, it has been a long, hard road to his first FIFA World Cup™.
His big break came last year at the age of 30, old for a striker to start an international charge. The veteran San Jose Earthquakes forward had only a handful of appearances as a substitute before Klinsmann picked him for his experimental CONCACAF Gold Cup squad. And like any opportunistic front-man, Wondo took his chance by the scruff of the neck and wrestled it to the ground. He scored a hat-trick against Belize with his name spelled wrong on his shirt, such was Wondolowski's status in the American camp.
We watched through a hole in the fence and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
“I thought it was hilarious,” the striker said of the kit-man’s error – an extra W in the middle of an already unwieldy surname. And by the time he was crowned top-scorer in the competition, helping the US to their fifth regional title, his name was on everyone’s lips. The free-scoring Wondo was all American fans could talk about.
Since then, he’s gone from strength to strength. “I’ve grown as a player since the Gold Cup,” said Wondolowski, twice MLS’s top-scorer with 80 goals since 2009. “I’ve had to step up my game and push myself,” added the man who came up through the second tier of the American university system and has never played outside of the United States.
Klinsmann continued to call him up. Wondo scored almost every time he was put on the field and the German boss was left with no real choice but to include him on the list for Brazil. It is not just the player’s goals that impress Klinsmann, but his attitude too. “In every training session he’s the first on the field and he’s ready to go, and he wants to prove it,” said the coach and former Germany ace, who sparked controversy by omitting Landon Donovan, a player Wondo has referred to as a “soccer genius.”
Wondolowski is an uncomplicated player. His job is to score goals and that’s exactly what he does best. “I’m not the fastest, I’m not the strongest, and I’m not the most technical player,” he admits. “As a striker, I have to be able to score. Ultimately, that’s how I’ll be judged.”
Not bothered about the order
Since the Gold Cup, Wondo has scored nine times in eleven games for his country. It is a return any striker would be envious of. But he refuses to be drawn into a debate about where he stands in the pecking order of US attackers. He will likely be used as a substitute behind Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore in Brazil, where USA will take on Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
“I can’t control the line-up, so I don’t think much about it,” he said, engaging and thoughtful. “I just work to make myself better. That’s my mentality: Work every day and take every chance you get."
Maybe it is his hard work, or maybe it is the special sense that truly natural scorers have, but Wondo is more than the sum of his parts, and his is a story to inspire even the hard-hearted. He is eager to learn from the rare chances that go begging, too.
“Being a striker can be a total frustration,” he said, talking about those times when the goal seems to shrink and the keepers grow to the size of elephants. “It’s about inches,” concluded the man who has come many hard miles to achieve a big dream. “Scoring goals is about angles and the tiniest invisible spaces.”
Now 31, Wondolowski is chasing a long-held and nearly discarded dream: to represent his country at the World Cup. His first taste of the tournament came when he was an 11-year-old boy in northern California, and it remains vivid in his memory. “Me and my friends went to watch Brazil practice,” he said, the smile that comes with fond and distant memories audible in his voice. “We watched through a hole in the fence and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I remember Romario’s goal against Sweden, the Final, the penalties,” he said and paused. “I remember thinking: I want this.”