81914_wood_bobby_supplied Jeffrey Donovan
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U.S. Striker Bobby Wood Faces Growing Expectations

The 21-year-old Hawaii native appears primed for a breakout season with 1860 Munich. His coach believes in him, as do the fans. Now he just has to deliver consistently in Germany's second division.
BY Jeffrey Donovan Posted
August 19, 2014
2:47 PM
MUNICH—Bobby Wood is all smiles, and why wouldn't he be? It’s a warm day in mid-August at 1860 Munich’s training grounds in the center of the Bavarian capital and the Hawaiian-born striker is basking in the rare German sunshine—as well as the confidence that his coach, Dutchman Ricardo Moniz, and fans are showing him early in the 2.Bundesliga season.

“I believe in this player, absolutely,” Moniz told American Soccer Now after a recent practice. “Bobby’s fast, skillful, and a good person. Football needs more players like this.”

But the 21-year-old striker knows such support, like sunny weather in Central Europe, is likely to be short-lived unless he can start paying it back—to the tune of multiple goals.

In three starts for die Löwen, including the last match against a third division team in the DFB-Pokal Cup, Wood has just one assist and no goals this season. With zero points, his struggling squad props up the bottom of the league table.

“I just have to hang tough,” a smiling Wood, sporting a Nike T-shirt with “Mr. Clutch” blazoned across it, said in an interview after training. “I finally have a trainer and sporting director that really like me, that are pushing me and giving me this confidence that I never really felt before and that’s important to have—someone standing behind me.”

But how long will they be there? Moniz, a devotee of Dutch skills master Wiel Coerver, is fighting for his job after his attacking-minded tactics conceded six goals in the first two league matches, including a humiliating 3-0 rout at home to RB Leipzig.

On Friday, Wood looks likely to get another chance to help out his embattled trainer when 1860 travel across Bavaria to take on Heidenheimer SB, a newly promoted team. A strong showing could also put him in the running for a call-up to the U.S. national team’s Sept. 3 friendly against the Czech Republic in nearby Prague. Wood debuted for the U.S. last summer in Sarajevo, coming on in the 87th minute in a 4-3 win over Bosnia.

“But I haven’t really been thinking about that right now,” Wood said. “My goal is to play consistently here and if I do that, I’ll hopefully get a chance to play with the national team.”

Moniz, who banished several players to the reserve team after they were caught partying after the Leipzig loss, was quoted in German media this week as saying his squad lacks attacking firepower. “We need another striker and a right winger,” he said, apparently not referring to Wood, who lines up on the top left of the coach’s favored 4-3-3 formation.

Moniz, and many fans, believes the positional change will reap dividends. Wood languished on the bench last season as a back-up center-forward after fighting to earn a first-team contract following a nearly career-threatening knee injury. To date, Wood has made 47 first-team appearances, many of them as a substitute, and scored three goals.

In the year’s first match, a 3-2 loss to Kaiserslautern, Wood rampaged on the left flank, notching an assist and twice threatening to score as Munich shot to a 2-0 first-half lead. But along with the rest of the team, Wood disappeared in the second half, according to Moniz, who said the player’s challenge now is to become consistent.

“His production last year was not like it should be: no statistics, no goals,” Moniz said. “Now we’re trying to bring him in from the side, with his face more open to the goal. He can come from the outside and cross with his left foot or his outside right, because that ball that he can get between the ‘keeper and the last line—that’s a killing ball. And when he cuts inside, he has an unbelievable shot.”

Fans seem as upbeat about Wood’s chances as his coach. The team, long suffering in the shadow of its illustrious crosstown rival Bayern, trains in a park-like setting near downtown Munich. Practices are open to the public and fans can get autographs and talk to the players or just hang out munching on bratwurst and drinking beer at the sky-blue-colored pub alongside the training ground. The fun, relaxed atmosphere is a breath of fresh air in a game that usually takes itself far too seriously in Europe.

“A couple of years ago, Bobby’s body didn’t seem ready for the second league in Germany,” said Philip Gerhardt, a 31-year-old science teacher who was sipping beer in the pub while watching practice. “But now he’s ready and he’s physically probably one of the strongest players and one of the fastest players on the team. I think he can play a big role this season and Moniz is also giving him a chance,” he said, predicting that Wood would score eight goals this season.

“He’s playing the Ribery position for us now, and he can do it,” said Alex Moest, 33, a financial consultant. “Last year he was playing as a 9, but that wasn’t his position and he was often on the bench. He’s technically very good, very fast, and on the left side he can do things one on one where the defense has to react, and we need that. I think he’ll score eight to 15 goals.”

For his part, Wood said that he’s looking to break out this season, but his main focus is to play as much as possible and have fun. After all the injuries and the long struggle to emerge from the academy, something few American players have achieved in Europe, it seems like the right approach for Wood, who once played for the Irvine Strikers and calls Southern California home.

“It’s tough here, especially the German people: they’re extremely tough,” Wood said. He also offered advice to the next generation of Americans making their way to academies in Europe, such as Christian Pulisic and Junior Flores at Borussia Dortmund. “Just try and stay positive. Stick it out as much as possible; there’s going to be down times. But don’t make a decision at that down moment; try and look at the long picture. There were times when I didn’t start here, either. And you just have to fight through it and look at it positively.”

Julian Kern, another fan watching practice in the August sunshine, said he believes that Wood’s perseverance may finally pay off.

“Technically, he’s evolved now and the coach believes in him,” Kern said. “That was often the problem with previous coaches: they didn’t believe in him. But now could be the time—it could be his breakout season.”

"Breakout." Moniz isn’t afraid to use that word, either. Besides consistency, however, the coach wants Wood to develop his game intelligence and movement off the ball. The young American should never hide from his responsibilities, he said, because his attacking role is too important to the team.

“He can’t have two faces on the pitch,” Moniz said.

“I show him videos every week of the great players: Maradona, Ronaldo, Messi, Cruyiff,” Moniz continued. “He must learn from their movements and from their skills because those great players must still be a model for the new generation. Sometimes people forget that and only play one or two touches; and when they don’t dribble or take the initiative, then football becomes predictable. But Bobby is very unpredictable.” Moniz has concrete expectations for Wood this season. He said he wants to see 10 to 12 goals and 20 assists, which would indicate not only “quality but efficiency.” And if that happens, Moniz believes 1860 might not be able to hold on to the player.

“That would be a breakout,” he said. “That would change his identity.”

Jeffrey Donovan is a veteran journalist based (or perhaps trapped) in Prague, Czech Republic. This is his first piece for American Soccer Now. Follow him on Twitter.

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