By Frank Dell’Apa/NPSL.com
Chris Wondolowski had to overcome steep odds, going from a $12,500 annual developmental contract with the San Jose Earthquakes, to MLS’ all-time leading scorer. But Wondolowski likely would not have made it to the ’Quakes in the first place if not for the single scholarship offer he received, which happened to be the last one awarded that year by Chico State coach Mike O’Malley.
At De La Salle High School in Concord, CA, Wondolowski had been a two-sport athlete, recruited by UCLA for cross country and track (mile time best 4:15) but off the lists of soccer scouts. Until O’Malley spotted him at the San Diego Surf Cup, that is.
“When Chris was in high school, he wanted to go to UC Berkeley and, evidently, they didn’t want him,” O’Malley recalled recently. “I heard about it and went to see him play in the San Diego Surf tournament on an annual scouting trip. He had real good skill but I approached his coach and said I keep hearing about his work rate but I didn’t see it. Chris has a way of covering a lot of ground but he shuffles around so it’s hard for a coach to notice. And his coach responded: ‘That’s his second game today.’ And I said it was the other team’s second game, too. And he said, ‘Well, not everyone else ran a 4:15 mile last night.’
“I said I didn’t know he was on the track team and his coach said: ‘He kind of is and he kind of isn’t. He just shows up for the big meets and runs.’ I was a distance runner in high school, and that blew me away.”
Chico State, an NCAA Division 2 program in Northern California, had just initiated scholarships, allowing four for soccer. O’Malley handed out three by the time Wondolowski visited the campus.
“Each scholarship was $2,000 and I had one left,” O’Malley said. “Chris was the only freshman I offered one to, and I told him that $2,000 was all we could give him.”
That was apparently good enough for Wondolowski, and his experience with the Wildcats and the Chico Rooks of the NPSL helped prepare him for the pros. Wondolowski totaled 39 goals in four seasons with Chico State, reaching the 2003 D2 title game. With the Rooks, Wondolowski made it to the 2004 NPSL divisional playoffs, losing to the Utah Salt Ratz, 1-0, in the semifinals. Wondolowski also converted in the Rooks’ 2-1 loss to the Boulder Rapids Reserves in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup.
“I’m still kind of bitter about losing to Utah,” Wondolowski said. “But the whole experience with the Rooks helped me be comfortable playing with bigger guys. You are always playing against people your age, but there I was playing against men. I learned what challenges to go into and how to stand up toe-to-toe and dish it out, and how to compete.”
Going from virtually unrecruited high school prospect to MLS is rare enough. But Wondolowski still had to survive as a low-paid reserve league player. Four years into his career, Wondolowski was still at minimum salary, about $30,000.
“It’s pretty crazy thinking back how many times it was razor thin between making it or not,” Wondolowski said. “You might not get time to show what you really have.”
In 2005, after losing Landon Donovan on loan to Bayer Leverkusen, the ’Quakes stocked up on proven strikers, and the roster also included Dwayne de Rosario, a midfielder who would lead the team in scoring. Wondolowski became something of an afterthought, selected in the MLS Supplemental draft. It seemed unlikely Wondo would ever become a regular, and it took him five years to break into the lineup. Then Wondolowski went on a tear and surpassed Donovan and every other MLS player to become the league’s all-time leading scorer with 171 goals. Along the way, Wondolowski was named MLS MVP in 2012, earned 35 U.S. national team caps (13 goals), tied for the 2013 Gold Cup in scoring lead (five goals), and played in the 2014 World Cup.
Part of the reason it took time for Wondolowski to emerge was competition for roster spots. In 2005, there were only 12 teams in MLS, and U.S.-born forwards seemed to be in abundance. In 1996, Roy Lassiter (27 goals) became the league’s first scoring leader, followed by Jason Kreis (1999), Taylor Twellman (2002 and ’05), Pat Noonan (’04), and Donovan (’08). Wondo emerged in 2010, capturing the first of three successive MLS Golden Boot awards, his 27 goals in 2012 equaling Lassiter’s league record. Since then, U.S. goal-scorers have dropped off. Wondolowski is the last U.S. player to lead MLS in scoring with foreign players dominating the charts. Last season, Jesus Ferreira and Brandon Vasquez tied for fourth on the list, but only three other U.S.-born players were among the top 53 MLS scorers.
“They’re out there but we lose them between the ages of 12 to 14-15 years old,” O’Malley said of potential domestic strikers. “I think our development system needs to take a serious look at itself, especially after the last World Cup. There will be more Chris Wondolowskis, players equally talented as he is. But I don’t see a lot of his scoring records being broken. MLS has been improving, and a player with Chris’ ability coming up will be recognized earlier and go on to Europe. Chris always had the ability and if it had been recognized earlier, he would’ve gone to Europe. But for five years in Houston he didn’t get a chance to show he was a flat-out goal-scorer and by then he was too old for European clubs.”
Wondolowski’s late emergence meant he did not receive national team attention until 2011, a week before his 28th birthday. His scoring rate of a goal per 119 minutes is the best in USMNT history for players with 10 goals or more. But Wondolowski is as well known for a goal he didn’t score – against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup – as for the ones he did convert.
“It’s tough in the sense that that is still one of my best memories,” Wondolowski said. “Being in Brazil for the World Cup, I wouldn’t ever change that for the world. I would love to change the Belgium moment. I will always regret that in the sense that it was a special team, and a special run to get out of the Group of Death.”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann sent in Wondolowski to replace Graham Zusi in the 72nd minute, pairing him with Clint Dempsey up front against the Belgians at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Bahia. Wondolowski sent an open shot over the goal in the final seconds of regulation time, and the U.S. fell 2-1 in extra time.
“I remember the World Cup team in Jacksonville [2-1 win over Nigeria in their final warmup] and I was off the bench and Jurgen telling me always be ready for your moment,” Wondolowski recalled. “I believe was ready for the moment against Belgium and in my heart, I wish it would’ve been different. And that’s what I love about sports and about this game – these moments help define a legacy and they can be cool but they can be harsh. Your legacy is intertwined, the balance of what you’ve produced and the good and bad thrown in there. There is a lot more good than bad in there and my legacy, I hope, is how I played the game, how I was as teammate, as well. There are many more things that go into the game than just scoring. As a striker you feed off [goals], that’s what motivates you. Obviously, winning, first and foremost, you need to score a goal.”
If by now anyone is thinking Wondo’s career seems fit for the screen, they can look forward to a film on his life via Ted Collins of Gritty Film Productions.
“Not a documentary, a feature,” Collins said. “Soccer is the most commercial [sport] internationally and that’s what Hollywood wants. We are at the early stages but this checks off all the boxes for big budget Hollywood.”
Collins sees Wondo’s underdog story as similar to David Anspaugh’s collegiate football movie Rudy.
“Leading scorer in MLS history, 26 more than Landon Donovan,” Collins said of Wondo. “He’s known for that unfortunate miss against Belgium, the dark night of the soul in the story, but that doesn’t define him. He is an incredible performer, accomplished. He was on the bench for so many years. The more you dig – supplemental draft pick, bench-warmer, leading scorer in MLS, the rise to fame. It’s inspirational.”