Two goals against South Korea has put Chris Wondolowski back into the World Cup conversation. (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
CARSON, Calif. – Clinging awkwardly to the very edge of Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup picture, Chris Wondolowski entered the U.S. national team’s January camp hoping to make his manager’s life difficult. The striker embraced the challenge.
“I always like to make things difficult. You can ask my parents,” Wondolowski joked.
The competition for roster spots is growing fiercer and time is running short. It’s likely that the U.S. will play only two more games before Klinsmann names the team that will head to Brazil, creating a now-or-never scenario for several players. Wondolowski, a proven MLS goal scorer who hasn’t established consistency at the international level, was among them.
“You never know when your last opportunity is going to come,” he said. “When you do get an opportunity you have to enjoy it, embrace and make the most of it and that’s what I always try to do.”
On Saturday here at StubHub Center, Wondolowski made the most of his last best chance, scoring both goals in the Americans’ 2-0 win over a South Korean squad that put up a genuine fight. As a result, the San Jose Earthquakes marksman returned emphatically to the World Cup conversation. And it is a conversation – this U.S. team has room for a player who can find space in an opponent’s penalty area and finish.
“I think Wondo is a wonderful example if you are committed, if you are hungry, if you give everything you have over a long period of time, sooner or later you get rewarded for it,” Klinsmann said following the match. “It’s been just really nice to see a player like him who is just waiting for his chances but also hungry for his chances. He’s a pure finisher. He smells where a ball will drop and fall in the box and he’s just right there and puts it in.”
Wondolowski spent the first six years of his MLS career as a frequent reserve for San Jose and the Houston Dynamo, but burst into the limelight in 2010 with a stunning 19-goal campaign. He made his U.S. debut the following year and in 2012, he tied MLS’ single-season scoring record with 27 as San Jose won the Supporters Shield.
But the goals didn’t come when wearing red, white and blue. He was shut out in his first nine internationals and questions about his ability to compete at the next level were raised. Wondolowski finally broke through last summer, netting his first U.S. goal in an exhibition rout of Guatemala and then scoring five in two games during the group stage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. But he petered out later in the tournament, struggled with a broken foot during the latter portion of the MLS season and seemed to be on the verge of World Cup irrelevance.
But he still thought he had something to offer.
“Something I can provide maybe late in the game, we need a goal, [I can] provide a little gap, a little space, clean up something far post, near post, whatever it is. Or if [Klinsmann] needs me to chase down guys I’ll chase down guys,” Wondolowski said. “That’s’ something I pride myself in, is hard work and trying to finish off opportunities.”
Said U.S. defender Clarence Goodson, Wondolowski’s teammate in San Jose, “Chris works so hard it’s incredible. People say this all the time, but honestly this guy is there early. He’s there late. He’s working all the time on his game. You couldn’t tell he’s done as much as he has based on how much he gives day in and day out.”
That commitment and hunger is exactly the sort of thing Klinsmann looks for in his players, and it’s surely what earned Wondolowski this final opportunity. He got a couple breaks as well. With 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee out with food poisoning and Eddie Johnson in reserve with an abdominal injury, Wondolowski got the start on Saturday vs. Korea. The extra ‘W’ that appeared on his jersey when he netted a Gold Cup hat trick against Belize was affixed inside his shirt for good luck, and mere minutes after kickoff his ability to read the play and pop up in the right place was evident.
Landon Donovan found Graham Zusi in space on the right wing, the cross was turned on goal by midfielder Brad Davis and Wondolowski was there to hammer home the rebound. It was 1-0, U.S., in just the fourth minute.
“His positioning was good. His running is always good. His work ethic is good. He’s a great guy to be around and he fits in with the team really well,” Donovan said. “Then when you get on the end of two plays and you make good plays, that’s going to help your cause a lot.”
In the 60th minute, Wondolowski doubled the U.S. advantage. Zusi hit a low pass across the penalty area that deflected off Donovan and toward Wondolowski. He recognized the play, beat a Korean defender to the ball and hammered his shot past goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong.
Wondolowski hit a cross that Donovan nearly finished in the first half, but otherwise had a relatively quiet hour-long shift – other than the two goals, of course. But he won’t need to have a 90-minute impact in Brazil. As he said, his turn likely would come when the U.S. needs a goal late. Under those circumstances, the Americans will have to push forward, take more chances and send passes into the penalty area, where no U.S. player may be more effective than Wondolowski at finding that sliver of space and getting to the ball.
The U.S. will meet Ukraine on March 5 in a game that probably will feature Klinsmann’s European-based players, leaving a rumored April friendly against Mexico as the final match before the manager picks his roster. Terrence Boyd, Herculez Gomez and Mike Magee likely are vying for one spot, and there’s always the possibility an unexpected contender will emerge (see Gomez, Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley in 2010).
But Wondolowski, who celebrated his 31st birthday last Tuesday, made a very strong case here in L.A. It’s an argument Klinsmann certainly will have to consider carefully.
"It’s really a reward for his commitment, for his attitude and for his character," Klinsmann said.