SAN JOSE, Calif. — Happy Birthday, Chris Wondolowski!
The San Jose Earthquakes long-time captain and record-holder in nearly every offensive statistical category marked another milestone Monday, as the man known simply as “Wondo” turned 36 years old.
The Quakes are currently training in Cancun, Mexico — not a bad locale in which to celebrate a birthday — as part of the team’s preseason ahead of its 2019 MLS opener on March 3. Wondolowski, about to embark on his 12th season with San Jose, is no longer in vacation mode following an off-season recharge, and he looks forward to erasing the memories of a brutal 2018 Earthquakes campaign.
“We’ve really been talking about the goals we need to have, and have those stepping stones to our main goal which is winning a championship,” Wondolowski shared during last week’s MLS media day event. “We have so many goals along the way, that if we hit those, we will continue to get better: having a winning home record, making the playoffs, all these little things are going to add up.”
Wondo is no stranger to the ups and downs that come with being a professional soccer player. And as the talisman in San Jose for nearly a decade, he’s seen the team’s fortunes swing from Supporters’ Shield to cellar-dweller seasons. Wondo firmly believes this year’s Quakes can rebound from last year’s franchise worst result.
“All you have to do is look at our history,” he said. “From 2000 to 2001, it was worst to first. That’s a no-brainer, something we can do. Even looking at 2012 and 2011, we struggled ahead of winning the Supporters’ Shield. In this league, there’s a lot of parity, and that makes it interesting, makes it funny and quirky at times. But it’s also something that drives it and is special about this league. You can go worst to first and no one will blink an eye. Everyone is in the game.”
What fuels Wondolowski’s optimism is, in part, the arrival of an entirely new coaching staff, lead by the 2018 Concacaf Men’s Coach of the Year, Matias Almeyda. Wondo believes the former Chivas coach has the pedigree the pull the Earthquakes out of obscurity and back into the MLS title hunt.
Describing the mood around the club in the simplest of terms, Wondolowski said, “Excited.”
“I knew his resume and I know what he brings to the game,” Wondolowski shared. “It’s amazing and profound to have him here. I’m excited to be a part of this, and excited to learn under his tutelage.”
It is in some ways curious to hear a 36-year-old say he has more to learn, but Wondolowski has never rested on his laurels. He had to persevere through a near anonymous early stage in his MLS career before gaining the spotlight as a steady goal scorer. Last season, he notched 10 goals — his ninth year in a row with double-digits — and he climbed the charts to within one goal of Landon Donovan’s all-time MLS record mark of 145. All eyes in San Jose will be on Wondo as he continues his pursuit of history. He hopes he breaks the record sooner than later.
“Very important, so I don’t have to answer these questions,” Wondolowski quipped. “I’d be lying if I didn’t wish it was done so I didn’t have to think about it all offseason. I know it’s there. It’s the elephant in the room.”
Almeyda won’t let Wondolowski’s goal chase disrupt the team. Rather, he wants the record to be part of a bigger plan for success, and he hopes Wondo won’t settle for reaching 146.
“When he breaks the record, hopefully it can be by not by just a single goal but by 20,” Almeyda said last week during his first press conference of the preseason. “The team will work with him to get it so that it isn’t only a record for him but for the team.”
Wondolowski’s longtime teammate Shea Salinas echoed the new coach’s comments, adding that he hopes the chase for the MLS scoring lead will have a ripple effect on the Earthquakes other goals for the season.
“He would say it’s not important,” Salinas said. “He’s going to focus on the team, making the playoffs, and winning the championship: that’s what Wondo wants before his career is done. Me personally, I’d love see him get the record and I’d love to pass him the ball to get the record. It’s big time, only two more goals. I expect him to get it early and we’ll be excited to celebrate with him.”
Salinas certainly knows Wondolowski well. The Quakes captain, indeed, deflected away personal attention and made the goals pursuit part of larger narrative: winning championships.
“For myself, as a striker, I have always put more of an emphasis on numbers, numbers for goals, but this year, it is about wins,” Wondolowski said. “I want double-digit wins, I want playoffs and I want to be lifting a cup. Whether it is the U.S. Open Cup, whether it is MLS Cup, whether it is the Supporters’ Shield, I want to be lifting a cup this year, one way or another. Those are the main goals I have written down this year.”
At 36, Wondo may not have too many seasons left in his career, something he alluded to at the tail end of 2018. He has seen many contemporaries hang up their boots in the last few years, notably fellow U.S. international forward Clint Dempsey, and he knows his turn to retire will come soon. Just last week, another pillar of the game, goalkeeper Tim Howard announced his plans to retire at the conclusion of the 2019 MLS season. Wondolowski definitely took notice.
“He is an absolute legend, both on and off the field,” he said. “The things he has done are amazing. From his career over in England, just to be able to pave the way for a lot of guys to play over there, to really making his a household name. Such a great player, and more importantly, a great guy.”
Wondolowski was there, in person, as Howard put on the single-most impressive goalkeeping display by an American, as the U.S. narrowly lost to Belgium in the knockout round of the 2014 World Cup. Wondo’s infamous missed shot on goal will always link him with Howard on that day, but their connection goes well beyond the game.
“His influence has helped me a lot,” he shared. “How to be a professional day in and day out. He works just as hard off the field at being a professional, giving everything he has, and what he puts into his body, and it’s pretty special how well he takes care of it and it’s stuck with me. It’s kind of crazy that I get to call him a friend, that I know him, We are similar in age, but I grew up with him, and watched him carefully. Such a great player, and more importantly, a great guy.”
Howard will be 40 when he leaves the game later this year. Wondolowski isn’t sure he’ll be able to stick around as long, but he isn’t ready to make his own retirement announcement.
“It’s kind of one of those things we are feeling out,” he said “It is really going to be one of those long sitdown talks — and that’s why I won’t be surprised if this season is it. And that being said, it is why I want to go out there and enjoy every second of it.
“Perhaps that might change my mentality at the end of it,” he continued, “and maybe I’ll try to hold on for one more. Honestly, I want to make sure I can still play at this level. I want to make sure I can still contribute and I don’t want to be a burden, that’s always been on my mind.”