ST. LOUIS — From October 2014 through last January, forward Bobby Wood appeared in five friendlies for the U.S. national team. His statistics—zero goals, zero assists and just three shots on goal in 207 minutes—illustrated his lack of impact. He simply didn’t look the part.
“Honestly, I wasn’t too happy with my performances. It was my first time there but it didn’t go as I thought it would. That’s pretty much all I can say,” he admitted as his voice trailed off.
Wood knew it wasn’t good enough. He knew there were questions about his ability to succeed at the international level. After all, he was barely hacking it in the German second division. Wood was an afterthought at 1860 Munich. He was frozen out by manager Markus von Ahlen—first to the bench, then the reserves—and hadn’t scored a 2. Bundesliga goal since early 2013.
But Jurgen Klinsmann kept calling. What was Wood supposed to do, decline the invitations? Admit he wasn’t ready, hang up the phone and go feel sorry for himself? For nearly eight years, since arriving in Germany as a 14-year-old, Wood had pushed through difficult times. He didn’t quit, even when he had every reason to do so. He was accustomed to dealing with doubt. In Klinsmann, Wood found a manager who maintained his faith, and that was sufficient fuel for the fight.
“I guess he just saw something in me. I’m grateful for that,” Wood told SI.com ahead of the USA's 2018 World Cup qualifying opener against St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“He didn’t want to let me fall. I was having a tough time around fall  in Germany and the main reason why I got the call up, I guess he wanted me to push to stay in Europe,” Wood continued.
He had navigated tough times before. Born and raised in Honolulu, Wood moved to Southern California with his mother and sister as a 12-year-old and then, two years later, left for Munich thanks to a connection between his Irvine Strikers coach and a colleague at 1860. Wood imagined staying in Bavaria and training with 1860 for a year-and-a-half before returning home. After living in Hawaii, he thought California was a soccer hotbed. Then he experienced Germany.
“At 14, there wasn’t really much press, but you felt it in the locker room. Kids at 14, 15, they’re already jabbing at you. They’re competition,” Wood said. “I came in as this new guy and everyone gave me a lot of crap at the beginning—not treating me nice. You knew they were talking about you in German and I didn’t understand. Just talking bad. You see it and you feel it. There’s a competitiveness there at a young age, fighting for your spots. They grow up with that.”
He threw himself into playing and learning the language, so at least he’d understand what teammates were saying about him. And he thought about leaving.
“I think like 80% of the time it was bad times, to be honest,” he said. “I had a good family. I had a bunch of good friends at home. I had a good support team that helped. There was never pressure. My mom and family were always there saying, ‘If you want to come home, we would love to have you home.’ But they knew I wanted this and they supported me as much as they could from so far away.”
Wood gradually made a few friends, but he also got used to being alone. He came to understand his “cutthroat” environment, in which a handful of teammates would get cut each season and “you won’t see them again.” He stuck around and survived. He made his pro debut in early 2011 and earned his first cap with the senior U.S. national team in an August 2013 friendly at Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But the struggle continued, through injury and the rise and fall of managerial favor, and it was left to Klinsmann to buoy the young striker last winter.
“He was trying to show me, just keep pushing,” Wood said. “If you keep pushing, you can be here at this level. It meant a lot. At that time, my head was almost gone. It was a really depressing time.”
1860 finally set Wood free in February, loaning him relegation-bound 2. Bundesliga rival Erzgebirge Aue. Von Ahlen was fired shortly thereafter, but Wood remained in Aue and finally played relatively regularly (before and after a knee injury), scoring three goals in nine games.
He was called up by Klinsmann for the June friendlies against the Netherlands and Germany.
What happened next was a shock to fans back home. But for Wood, it was a long time coming.
The 90th-minute game-winner against the Dutch was an easy six-yard finish. Michael Bradley did most of the hard work on a mazy run through midfield and Jordan Morris set the table.
But a goal is a goal.
“I’m a striker and goals get your confidence up. After I scored, even though it was a tap-in, mentally I scored my first goal with the national team and it was awesome. It was something you always wanted to do and you want that feeling again, and I just went into the [Germany] game hungry for that exact feeling,” Wood said.
He entered the friendly in Cologne in the 74th and 13 minutes later, delivered a goal for the ages. This was no tap-in. Morris dummied a long, low pass from right back Brad Evans, and Wood separated himself from Germany defender Shkodran Mustafi with a perfect first touch. A second brought Wood to the top of the penalty arc, from where he unleashed a blistering drive that beat goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler to the left post.
Fox announcer John Strong spoke for just about everyone watching when he yelled, “Bobby Wood fires and scores! Are you serious?”
Wood still can’t find the words to describe it. Ask him how it felt, what it meant, and he just shakes his head, smiles and then shakes his head again.
“It just happened,” he says after a moment. “I thought I worked hard to get that point, to get the call-up and yeah, it just kind of happened. What can I say? It’s an amazing feeling.”
Klinsmann left Wood off the CONCACAF Gold Cup team so he could finally sort out his career back in Germany. In early July, Wood signed a three-year deal with 2. Bundesliga side Union Berlin. He moved to the capital with his girlfriend, found a place in Mitte and settled in relatively quickly. Feeling confident and wanted, Wood has five goals in 14 games. He’s the co-leading scorer for 14th-place Union, which currently sits five points above 1860.
His next task: Prove those June goals were no fluke.
Last month, Klinsmann called him up to train ahead of the Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico. Wood wasn’t active, but would play in the ensuing friendly against Costa Rica. Then Alejandro Bedoya got sick. So Wood was on the active roster, then in uniform at the Rose Bowl, then told to take the field in the 98th minute of a match the Americans were losing. Ten minutes later, he ran on to a through ball from DeAndre Yedlin and rolled a shot through Moisés Muñoz’s legs to tie the game. Wood’s ability to read the play as it developed was key. He was in the left channel about 30 yards from the Mexico net as Yedlin turned with the ball. Wood sprinted between Mexico’s center backs and was nearing the right corner of the six-yard box as he took the shot.
Mexico bounced back and won, but Wood had taken another step forward.
“It was my first competitive game—not a friendly—and it was back at home in California. My mom and family and friends were there. It was a special moment. It got ruined a bit, but it was a big moment mentally,” he said. “I’m here for a reason and I want to show that I deserve to be here and that it’s not some fluke. That’s the point I want to prove.”
Against Costa Rica, Wood entered as a sub but was one of the few U.S. players to show signs of life during a dreary defeat. His eagerness and ability to take space on the dribble, go at defenders and look for pacey, powerful runs behind the defense was evident, if not rewarded. But Klinsmann took note. Wood played in the September friendlies against Peru and Brazil and then with Clint Dempsey and Aron Jóhannsson absent last week, Wood earned the start against St. Vincent. In the 11th minute, he tallied his fourth goal in seven U.S. games on a smart, far-post header. And he probably should have scored one or two more as the Americans pulled away and won, 6-1, at Busch Stadium.
“Bobby is going just through a maturing process, one step at a time. Sometimes you go a step backwards, and then you go two forward. This is what it is for young players,” Klinsmann said following the game. “You just hope the coaching staff gives you the support, and the minutes on the field to get your goals as a striker, to hopefully perform well. And I think Bobby is on the right track. He still has a long way to go and he knows that. He’s hungry and he's eager to prove a point. He wants to do well for the team. He’s a team player and he’s ready to battle and hopefully we see even more to come.”
Wood turned 23 on Sunday, and on Tuesday evening, he’ll be in contention to earn his fourth national team start of the year when the U.S. meets Trinidad and Tobago at Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain. These are moments of transition and opportunity. Three points would put the Americans in great shape in this semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, while another good performance would boost Wood further up the depth chart. There no longer is any doubt that he belongs. The only question now concerns how far he might go.
“This is what you prepare for. That’s the mindset you kind of have to have, kind of—I don’t want to use bad language—but f***-it mode. You just have to go in with that mentality that you’ve got nothing to lose. Be confident in your qualities. Be confident you can help the team,” Wood said. “I’ve seen my development grow and I don’t think I would’ve grown to the level I’m at now without coming to Europe, without going through those times. I’m grateful for my path.”