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Player Spotlight

Chris Wondolowski Keeps Pushing for World Cup Spot

The 31-year-old striker may be a dominant force in MLS, but he knows he will face stiff competition if he wants to make it to Brazil. ASN's Brian Sciaretta interviewed the San Jose Earthquake forward

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 04, 2014
10:39 AM
CHRIS WONDOLOWSKI WON the Major League Soccer scoring title in 2010 and 2012; was named the league MVP in 2012; and earned his way onto the MLS Best XI from 2010-2013. He has scored a staggering 75 goals in 133 league matches since 2009.

The San Jose Earthquakes striker is unquestionably one of the best players in MLS, but there is no guarantee that his success in the American domestic league will translate to a spot on the U.S. World Cup team traveling to Brazil in June.

Wondolowski was well aware that he needed a big game against South Korea on Saturday in order to elevate his status within the U.S. national team. After doing just that by scoring both goals in the United States’ 2-0 win, the 31-year-old acknowledged that his sterling performance was one of the most important games of his career.

“It definitely ranks up there” Wondolowski told American Soccer Now. “Even if it is just a friendly, it means a lot. It was great to be in camp for the whole month. It was a lot of preparation for just one game but it’s great you can prove yourself day in and day out in front of the coaching staff and learn from them.”

“I thought I played fairly well,” he continued. “I’m starting to become a lot more consistent, which was one of my goals and one of the things I really needed to work on. Throughout camp I was able to get stronger and get better as the time went on.”

The logjam at the forward position is plain for all to see. Right now, the top two forwards are Jozy Alitdore and Aron Johannsson. United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann also could shift Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey up top. Those four players are locks for the lineup, and the other forwards will be in a scramble to secure roster spots behind them.

Eddie Johnson has been a consistent contributor during World Cup qualifying and Herculez Gomez is back playing regularly in Mexico with Club Tijuana. Juan Agudelo was especially solid last year with New England and is on loan with the Utrecht in the Eredivisie, where American attackers have flourished. Terrence Boyd continues to score goals in Austria while looking for his first goal for the U.S team. And reigning MLS MVP Mike Magee missed an opportunity to play against South Korea with food poisoning but Klinsmann may want to give him another opportunity in one of the upcoming U.S. friendlies.

For his part, Wondolowski knows what he is up against to make the team but insists that part of the reason for his success has been the competition that he has faced within the squad.

“My position is very deep and there are some great forwards,” Wondolowski said. “That competition drives us to get better and take that next step. It’s helped me these past few years and I’ve wanted to learn from them. You can’t really play a numbers game. You can’t see who is ahead of you or where you might stand. All you can do is work hard and when you get opportunities, make the most of it.”

Following the win over South Korea, Klinsmann spoke admiringly about Wondolowski’s ability to anticipate the game. The coach credited his striker’s strong performance to all of the hard work the Bay Area native has put in over the past few years.

“You learn always something new when you work with people and with players,” Klinsmann said of Wondolowski. “I think Wondo is a wonderful example [where] if you're committed, if you're hungry, if you give everything you have over a long period of time, sooner or later you'll get rewarded for it. For the two-and-a-half years we've been working together, and in every training session and in every day he came in, he gave everything he has.”

“He's a pure finisher,” Klinsmann added. “He smells where the ball will fall in the box. He's just right there and puts it in. He follows his first thought and just gets it done. It's really a reward for his commitment, for his attitude, for his character.

“It's cool.”

Wondolowski has evolved into a lethal finisher in the box, but translating that success to the international level has always been an issue.

He made his national team debut in 2011 under former coach Bob Bradley. But he didn’t score his first international goal until his 10th appearance in a U.S. jersey—in a pre-Gold Cup friendly against Guatemala. Days later he scored a hat trick in a Gold Cup group stage game against an outmanned Belize team, and then he added two more goals against Cuba.

WITH HIS TWO TALLIES against South Korea, Wondolowski now has eight goals in 18 total appearances with the U.S. But it’s safe to say that Ghana, Portugal, and Germany will provide tougher competition than what Wondolowski has faced so far. At first, it was a transition for him to adjust to the international game but the former Chico State Wildcat insists he has grown into the speed of the international game.

“The physical aspect is a bit different,” Wondolowski said of his transition from MLS to the international game. “It’s a lot faster. Your decision making is the big thing. It has to be quick and accurate as well. You have to make the right decision because the minor mistakes get exploited very easily at that next level. My mind-frame needs to stay the same. I need to trust in my own abilities and know I can play there. It took me a little to understand that, but I understand it now that what I can do at the MLS level can translate over.”

Wondolowski has played his entire professional career in MLS, and it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Drafted by San Jose with the 41st pick in the 2005 Supplemental draft, he scored just seven goals in 53 MLS games between 2005 and 2009. It wasn't until 2010 when he first broke onto the scene as a top American player

Like most players, he is excited to see MLS’ talent uptick in recent years, including the arrival of U.S. teammates Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. While a growing percentage of the team now plays in MLS, most players have played abroad at some point in their respective careers.

Somewhat surprisingly, Wondolowski still keeps the door slightly open for a potential move to Europe—even at this stage of his career.

“I’ve always kept my ears open,” Wondolowski said. “I’d always love to experience that situation but it has to be the right situation. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to play, basically, in my hometown. I’m definitely still playing close attention to it. If there is something that pops up, I would be interested. But it has to work out on all accounts for me.”

Does he think that playing his entire professional career in MLS has held him back?

“To be truthfully honest, I think it does limit or pigeonhole you just a bit,” Wondolowski said. “Some fans, I think, do have a sense where you do have to go to Europe to try to prove yourself. That’s all right. But I think you can still be successful for club and country if you do stay in MLS. There are certain people who can excel even more if they do go to Europe. It’s an individual thing.”

For now Wondolowski is excited to start the preseason with the Earthquakes, and he knows that everything he does over the next few months will help determine if he is on the plane to Brazil.

“My mind frame is, ‘Just one at time,’” Wondolowski said. “All I am trying to do is get one more opportunity. If I can get that, then I’ll try to make to most of it.”

“The World Cup is the ultimate goal,” he added. “Always, growing up, I’d play with my brothers and dream of scoring the winning goal at the World Cup. I can’t really wrap my head around it yet. I’m hoping it’ll happen and then the rest of my life I can let it slowly sink in.”

What did you think of Wondolowski’s performance against South Korea? Would you like to see him on the 23-man roster for Brazil? Share your thoughts below.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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