Chris Wondolowski played well early in the Gold Cup, but the competition for U.S. forward spots in Brazil is deep. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
On Wednesday night in San Jose, Chris Wondolowski gave Earthquakes fans something to celebrate at the end of a frustrating downer of a season.
In the 62nd minute of a do-or-die CONCACAF Champions League showdown against Guatemala’s CD Heredia, Wondolowski found space in the penalty area and knocked home a cross from Shea Salinas. The goal lifted San Jose to a 1-0 win and a spot in next spring’s CCL quarterfinals.
“It’s something we can hang our hats on,” the reigning MLS MVP told reporters following the game.
San Jose needed that something. It’s been a mostly miserable 2013, especially when compared to the prior year. The Earthquakes followed up on their memorable “Goonies Never Say Die” Supporters' Shield triumph with a 13-11-9 campaign that will conclude this weekend without an MLS Cup playoff berth.
Coach Frank Yallop departed unexpectedly in June (club management insisted he wasn’t fired), and a resurgence under interim manager Mark Watson failed to salvage the season. In 2012, San Jose scored 72 regular season goals, the most by any team in 14 years. This season it has just 33 with one match remaining.
Wondolowski is the face of that frustration. His record-tying haul of 27 MLS goals in 2012 has shriveled to 10. The finisher hasn’t finished. Last year, he put in more than one of every five shots. This season he’s converted one out of 10 in league play.
“You just have to try to keep doing the right things, and no matter what you do, sometimes they don’t go in and sometimes you mishit and your fortunate bounce is the one that goes in,” Wondolowski told SI.com this week. “I definitely think we didn’t perform all across the board to the best of our abilities. I think it’s all of us. And it’s myself, for just not getting it done. There were definitely a lot of injuries and things that weren’t going our way, but that happens to every team. There’s a lot of ups and downs throughout the year but you have to be able to play through them. In the first five months of this year we made a lot of mistakes -– especially a lot of mental mistakes -– and we got punished.”
CCL advancement was crucial for Wondolowski, not only because it prevented San Jose’s 2013 campaign from being a total wash, but because it offered the promise of at least two big games at the start of next season. The thought of starting from scratch wasn’t appealing.
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Wondolowski, of course, already has done that. The story of his career surely will be anchored by his rise from supplemental draft pick and five-year benchwarmer to an MVP with a designated player contract. It’ll be enhanced when he helps his hometown club open its new stadium in 2015. But a significant chunk of his potential legacy remains unclaimed.
Next year is a big one for Wondo and not just because of the CCL quarters or the pressure to return to the MLS playoffs. He sits squarely on the World Cup bubble. At his wily and clinical best, he’d be an asset in Brazil –- especially if the U.S. needs a late goal against a team that doesn’t lose the possession battle. But he’s also part of a group of American forwards that appears to be the deepest in program history.
Wondolowski has maintained his place in the picture. He broke his maddening international duck in July with a goal against Guatemala, then tore through the first round of the CONCACAF Gold Cup with five more. But he failed to find the net in the knockout stage and didn’t see action in the final. Wondolowski was called into the team that finished off the World Cup qualifying this month but didn’t play.
“This will be an interesting six months,” he said. “I’m going to try everything I can for a couple of things. One is to make sure we’re in position to be back in the playoffs next year. And I also want to do everything I can to the best of my abilities so I can make a strong case for Brazil.”
He’ll be available for next month’s friendlies against Scotland and Austria and then for the annual national team camp in January. But U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer’s website in an interview published Thursday that he’d prefer MLS-based hopefuls to spend their offseason on loan in Europe.
“Our priorities are set so that the first one is if you get a chance to go on loan to Europe, do it,” Klinsmann said. “Compete there with good players overseas. If not, we have to find a solution for the players that maybe lose in the playoffs to keep going until the first weeks of December and then they have a well-deserved, four-week break until the beginning of January. It is very crucial for us that the players understand that everything they do now today has an influence on Brazil 2014 next summer. They can’t take it easy.”
Wondolowski, 30, hasn’t played abroad. But he told SI.com that he’s considering it this winter.
“It’s something I’ve thrown around and talked about. I’ve definitely debated it and kept my ear out there and if there’s anything worthwhile, I would be open to it, absolutely,” he said. “I have an agent in Europe that has been listening for things. … It’s kind of been on the back burner for the last couple of months, but that’s definitely going to get ramped up now.”
If that doesn’t work out, he’ll head to Klinsmann’s January camp. That very well may be his last chance to prove his World Cup worth. Wondolowski said the quality of the U.S. forward corps hasn’t been lost on him. Less than four years ago, Bob Bradley brought a 20-year-old Jozy Altidore and the in-form but inexperienced Herculez Gomez, Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley to South Africa. If that quartet could time travel from 2010 to next May, odds are none of them gets the green light for Brazil.
Altidore and Gomez now are seasoned internationals, Clint Dempsey is playing further up the field under Klinsmann, Aron Johannsson is a rising star, Eddie Johnson has seized his opportunity and Terrence Boyd continues to lurk.
Wondolowski doesn’t lament the competition. He credits it for getting him as far as he’s come.
“When we’re all in camp together, I look around and I see four or five other great forwards. It just breeds success. It breeds a competitive nature. I want to get better and they want to get better and prove themselves and it’s something that will continue to grow,” he said. “It’s always been a big knock on U.S. soccer –- great defenders and goalies, great center guys like Michael Bradley -– but a deadly forward, let alone a depth of them? That’s something that’s always been missing. It’s great to see, and I’m excited.”
Wondolowski has a big to-do list for 2014. He got an early start and checked off the first task Wednesday night. But there’s much more to come.
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