Soccer has long been known for its one-name goal scorers. Fifty years ago, it was a brilliant Brazilian star everyone called Pele. Today, it's an Argentine artist named Lionel but now known by his last name: Messi. Just saying their names evokes images of magic and trickery.
And then there is Wondo.
Chris Wondolowski does not elicit the same response from even the most die-hard fan — if they know him at all. He is more mechanic than maestro, a player who was expected to spend his career on the fringes, if not on the bench, until he emerged as a goal-scoring machine.
As the U.S. men's national team winds its way through Baltimore for today's CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal against El Salvador at M&T; Bank Stadium, many fans in the sellout crowd will focus on Landon Donovan, clearly the biggest name on the pitch.
But El Salvador's defenders surely will pay attention to where Wondo is and where he is going. Usually, he winds up near the net, scoring goals.
“To be honest, watching from a different team, there's always questions of, ‘Who is this guy?' and ‘How is he doing this?' and maybe he's lucky,” said Alan Gordon, a teammate of Wondolowski's the past two years with the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer.
Gordon, who was added to the U.S. roster Wednesday, said his opinion of Wondolowski, 30, changed when they became teammates.
“Being next to him, he's someone that I look to learn from every day, and I'm older than he is,” said Gordon, 31. “He has a tremendous work ethic. He's out finishing past everybody every single day. He's got a knack for the goal. He knows where to be at the right time and buries his [scoring] chances.”
What Wondolowski has done in the Gold Cup so far — scoring a tournament-best five goals in three games, including three in a 6-1 win over Belize — is merely a continuation of the past three MLS seasons. Wondolowski has scored 66 times since 2010, including 27 goals last year, which tied a league record.
“I've always been confident in my skills and in my ability, but with the skills that I have, I feel I must be in the right situation because I rely a lot on my teammates,” Wondolowski said. “It's been a bit of a perfect storm of late.”
‘An inner drive'
He knows that winning MLS scoring titles and the Most Valuable Player award in 2012 is not the same as doing it in a top European league or at the World Cup. The same chip he has carried since his high school days in Danville, Calif., needs to stay there for him to be successful.
Hoping to play at California, where his father, John, played in college and where one of his high school teammates was recruited, Wondolowski wound up at Division II Chico State, located 21/2 hours from home. It was the only school to offer the undersized player a scholarship.
“You always want to prove yourself,” Wondolowski said. “Coming from DivisionII, you always want to show that you belong, you can hang. It's just an inner drive that just becomes instilled in you. It's not like I felt like I've been overlooked or people didn't give me a chance.”
John Wondolowski said the eldest of his three sons might have been off the radar of most Division I college coaches because he played three other sports.
Though he eventually gave up baseball and basketball to concentrate on soccer, Wondolowski ran track rather than join the prestigious Olympic Development Program.
He eventually became one of the top milers in the state and was recruited by UCLA for track. In fact, it wasn't Wondolowski's soccer talents that first piqued the curiosity of former Chico State coach Mike O'Malley.
“When I found out he ran a 4:15 mile and he wasn't even practicing with the track team, I brought him up for a visit,” O'Malley said.
O'Malley learned quickly what kind of player Wondolowski could become.
“Usually these high school kids come up and play at the college level [and] they look lost,” O'Malley said. “But he wasn't lost at all. He was passing. He had good touch. The one thing he has always had is an ability to finish. He'll put it in the net any way he can.”
But even O'Malley is a bit shocked at what Wondolowski has done the past few years.
“I always thought he had the right components and the right attitude and the right work ethic to play at the professional level, but honestly, I had no idea he'd be succeeding at the level he's at,” he said. “But every level he's played at, he's found a way to succeed.”
‘Not a dynamic player'
John Wondolowski said his son benefited from spending most of his first four years in MLS with the Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo sitting on the bench, building his confidence as a goal-scorer in practice and reserve games.
“I think he was able to really understand the game a lot more, sitting on the bench,” John Wondolowski said. “He got his opportunity at the exact right time.”
It came early in the 2010 season, when Wondolowski scored in four straight games. He hasn't stopped since.
Mark Watson, then an assistant coach and now interim head coach of the Earthquakes, said Wondolowski's ability to score comes from “putting himself in a difficult spot for defenders to mark him. Wondo does it instinctively. He just knows how to be elusive. It's something you either have or you don't have.”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a prolific striker during his playing days, recognizes that goal-scorers come in many different forms.
“It's wonderful to see Wondo over the last couple of weeks getting more and more confident [with] every goal he scores,” Klinsmann said. “I think every forward has his own quality and characteristics. [Wondolowski] senses where the ball will drop. He has a sense of where to go in specific moments, where the second ball [loose ball] will drop and be right there, and that makes him so successful in MLS.”
O'Malley said the only way to appreciate Wondolowski is to watch him on tape, and maybe slow the tape down.
“When you watch him play, he's not a dynamic player,” O'Malley said. “He has a style where he's consistently moving, and if you don't actually study him, you think, ‘What's he doing?' and when he scores a goal, it almost seems lucky. But once you study him, you can see how much work he puts in and how much ground he covers.”
Wondolowski, who doubled his salary by signing for a reported $600,000 in February, is not looking past today's game. While he would love to someday play in Europe, he doesn't seem to mind his life in the United States with wife, Lindsey, a former Chico State volleyball player, and their two dogs.
“I keep an open mind. I love my time right now. I love California and playing close to home,” he said. “I really don't feel a lot of pressure. Anytime you're given the chance, you try to make the most of that opportunity and hope that the coach wants to play you again the next game. I'm up there now, but next summer is still a long way away; next World Cup is still a year away in Brazil. You have to play consistently for a year. My goal is more short-term, play well each day at practice and try to impress the coach one day at a time.”