There are a number of choices for the title of most memorable goal in U.S. Soccer history. The list starts with Landon Donovan’s shot off a rebound to beat Algeria in 2010, Eric Wynalda’s free kick against Switzerland in 1994 that gave the U.S. its first World Cup point in 44 years, and Paul Caligiuri’s left-footed rainbow that beat Trinidad and Tobago and qualified the Americans for the 1990 World Cup.
But the list of most memorable miss begins and ends with one shot: Chris Wondolowski’s stoppage-time shank on what would have been a game-winning score against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup.
“Putting it behind me is all relative,” Wondolowski said Tuesday. “It will always haunt me.”
But it has also helped him.
Succeed on soccer’s biggest stage and there is no shortage of people ready to help you celebrate. Fail and you grieve on your own. Three years after that miss, Wondolowski said the experience taught him about perseverance and perspective, lessons he’s trying to share with his U.S. teammates ahead of Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifier with Panama at Orlando City Stadium.
Beat Panama and the U.S. will move a big step closer to clinching a berth in next summer’s tournament in Russia. Lose or draw, and that path becomes much narrower.
“You have to have a short memory,” Wondolowski said. “I’m going to try to pass it on to some of these young guys. Sometimes those things can stick with you and affect your play.
“Confidence is a funny thing. It can come and go pretty easily.”
Fortunately for Wondolowski, the national team’s coaching staff has a long memory. One long enough to remember Wondolowski tying the MLS record 27 goals — including 11 game-winners — for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2012. One long enough to remember Wondolowski finishing among the top nine goal-scorers in MLS every season between 2010-15. And one long enough to remember that Wondolowski has been called in for most of the major competitions in which the U.S. has played since the 2011 Gold Cup.
“He’s a good, experienced player,” coach Bruce Arena said. “He knows how to play. He has a habit of scoring goals.”
Wondolowski brings another attribute, though; one he doesn’t have to leave the bench to employ.
“He’s a very good teammate,” said Arena, who has called Wondolowski up for six of the past eight World Cup qualifiers but has yet to play him.
At 34, Wondolowski is the second-oldest field player on the national team and he takes his elder statesmen role seriously.
“Wondo is a veteran presence who is great example for the entire group,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “Whatever is asked of him, he brings it to the table every single day. Wondo is a great teammate.”
On Tuesday, for example, he offered teenage playmaker Christian Pulisic some tips on how to take on Panama midfielder Anibal Godoy, Wondolowski’s teammate for three seasons in San Jose.
“I know these guys are going to play and I might not. But I still feel I can provide them with some knowledge that might help,” Wondolowski said. “That’s always kind of been my mentality.
“It’s not a conscious thing where ‘oh, I’ve got to coach these guys.’ It’s kind of just what I’ve done.”
What if Wondolowski gets a chance to play Friday against Panama? And what if another header drops to his right foot at the edge of the six-yard box? And what if, this time, he puts the shot in the back of the net, qualifying the U.S. for next summer’s World Cup?
“It’s not going to erase the Belgium game,” he said with a pained grin. “You dream about situations like that, scoring big goals, scoring big goals for the U.S. to get them to the World Cup.
“It wouldn’t be redemption in any sense. But it would be a huge honor to do that.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11