WORDS: GARRY HAYES
Chris Wondolowski has set the MLS alight this season, scoring a record-equalling 27 regular season goals for the high-flying San Jose Earthquakes. He spoke exclusively to TheInsideLeft about his untypical rise to prominence and the rumours linking him with a move across the Atlantic Ocean…
Image courtesy of San Jose Earthquakes
Amid the capacity crowd at Philadelphia Union’s PPL Park earlier this season, one voice stood out from them all for Chris Wondolowski.
The 29-year-old San Jose Earthquakes striker was on MLS All-Stars duty, facing European champions Chelsea, and as the half-time whistle blew, he heard a call from behind him and John Terry approached.
“Your movement is incredible. Serious,” the Chelsea captain said to Wondolowski, who unknown to Terry at the time was wearing a microphone as part of an NBC Sports documentary. “It’s like a nightmare for me.”
That a defender being given a tough time by an opponent should feel the need to seek him out and praise his ability at the interval is perhaps surprising enough. That it was John Terry made it all the more special for the man known around the MLS as ‘Wondo’.
“It took me by surprise,” he tells us. “I think that’s probably the best part of it, too, that he took it upon himself to say what he did. I really enjoyed that as it doesn’t really happen that often.
“It’s probably the greatest compliment I have ever received, especially coming from a player of his calibre. I think his pedigree is amazing. He is a world-class player, so to hear those words coming from him was a great feeling and meant a lot. It motivated me even more and I wanted to play better. It was truly a great compliment.”
What Terry witnessed that July evening in Philadelphia had been abundantly clear to many fans of MLS for much of this season and beyond, although the rest of the world has been a little slower in catching up.
Since his opening goal in the All-Stars’ 3-2 victory over Chelsea, Wondolowski has hit 27 regular season goals in MLS, equaling Roy Lassiter’s record set in 1996. It brings his tally for the last three seasons up to 61 and has inevitably led to Wondo receiving international acclaim normally reserved for such MLS stars as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan.
“We have some big-name players here in the MLS now – guys who have been the best in the world and achieved so much,” he says. “To be mentioned in the same breath as them is a massive honour for me. To be considered on that level and as their peer is something I really appreciate. Now I just want this to continue and I want to get better at what I do.”
That Wondolowski has arrived at this point in his career is no accident. Depending on the way you view it, he is essentially a one-club man, having been selected 41st overall in the Supplemental Draft for San Jose Earthquakes in 2005 before the franchise switched to Texas and became Houston Dynamo a season later. When the decision was made for San Jose to be reformed in 2009, Wondo was one of the players the reborn franchise took with them.
Up to that point, game time had been limited to the reserve leagues, but given his chance to bask in the spotlight with the switch back to California, he hasn’t disappointed.
“I experienced a different path to other soccer players,” he admits. “I went to a small division two college [Chico State in California], so it was a little bit of a longer road I had to take.
“I was thankful that I played in the reserve league [when I joined the Earthquakes], as I was able to play a lot of games and get some experience at a higher level than college. It was a great stepping-stone and it allowed me to get used to the speed of play. It taught me a lot as a player and helped me progress to play at this level.
“It took me a few years to get my feet under me, but now I think I am a better player for that experience.
“To be honest, I always thought I could make it, but I was also aware that it would take a little bit of luck and a fortunate break for me to achieve what I had always wanted, which was to play professional.
“It took a lot of hard work, great coaching and great teammates to get me where I am. After everything and all the work, it has come together.
“My record over the past three seasons has been good. It’s been nice to play and get my form and goal scoring going, so I am really happy.”
Indeed, those three seasons have seen him break and equal a few records along the way. In 2009, Wondolowski scored the 7,000th goal in MLS history, while this season has seen him become the Earthquakes’ all-time goalscorer and equal Lassiter’s aforementioned regular-season record with a penalty against Portland Timbers on 27 October, the last day of the regular season.
“Anytime you can get your name in the history books, it’s special and is a big accomplishment,” he says. “When I got the penalty [against Portland] I just wanted to step up and bury it. I felt confident I would score, but at the same time I didn’t want any regrets, you know, thinking a little later down the road that I could have done better with the PK. It was one of those where I knew which point I wanted to hit and I just tried to bury it. When it hit the back of the net there was a feeling of relief.
“There was a lot of build up going into that game, but when the whistle blew it quickly became just another game for me and I accepted that whatever happened, happened. Now I’m so happy to have equalled the record, but I want some more records to my name.”
Whether those records Wondo is chasing are in MLS or further afield next season is a question every football writer Stateside has been debating in recent weeks. If the internet rumour mill is anything to go by, the upcoming MLS Play-Offs will be Wondolowski’s last in an Earthquakes jersey as some of Europe’s clubs come calling. But for the man himself, he says he will be happy whatever the outcome.
“It’s flattering to be linked with a move to Europe. Anytime you provoke interest is good and I always keep the doors open to playing in a bigger league. But for anyone to want you in their team, it means they respect you as a player. If people are talking about you in that way, it’s flattering, but I do know I am under contract for the next two years and my commitment is to the Earthquakes.
“I am very happy here and I really want the season to end well so we can achieve what we set out to do and win the Play-Offs. We’ve won the Supporters’ Shield, so now we want to go one better.
“I feel confident in my ability to achieve something in Europe. I’m more of a cerebral player, rather than one who is dribbling past players and I like to think quickly with my movement. I’m not the most athletic or fastest player, so the pace of the game would take some getting used to I think.
“I can definitely create plenty of chances and score some goals for sure, though. I’m like any striker in that I think I can score a goal at any time and I’m confident that if I were to play in Europe, this would be the case.”
If Wondo’s 27 goals this season are anything to go by, who are we to doubt him?