SAN JOSE, Calif. — Happy birthday, Chris Wondolowski!
While many folks choose to celebrate their birthdays with style, the San Jose Earthquakes star will be focused on substance, as the newly minted 37-year-old toils through two-a-day trainings in Cancun as part of the team’s preseason.
The veteran forward and all-time leading MLS goalscorer would be forgiven for asking to take it easy, but that is not Wondolowski’s way, and with the announcement that 2020 will be his last MLS season, he wants to savor every last bit of the experience — good, bad, or ugly.
“Absolutely, I want to go in with no regrets,” Wondolowski said. “I kind of think it speaks for itself. I want to enjoy it and have fun, so I don’t want to think about what-ifs, don’t want to leave out anything on the field, so I’m just going to go out there and enjoy it.”
Just win, baby
Since Wondolowski entered MLS in 2005, an unassuming forward from a Division II collegiate program, he’s learned to enjoy every moment of his career. From dominating the old Reserve League, to riding the bench with the Houston Dynamo, to finally getting his break back with the Quakes in 2010, Wondo has traveled on a unique path for his 15 MLS seasons. He almost left the game early on, when money was tight and playing time nonexistent, but he persevered, and today can appreciate the journey.
”I am looking forward to just enjoying, you know, everything,” Wondolowski shared. “Every road trip, the last times for this, the practices, the last preseason, just like, even the little things, and I’m going to take it with a serious aspect of it and work harder than I have and leave nothing on the table. But I also want to enjoy and relish each moment, each moment as it comes, because we always joke around that the days are long, but the years are short, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Wondolowski was the league’s MVP in 2012, the year the Earthquakes captured the Supporters’ Shield, and he tied the then record for goals in an MLS season with 27. It was the peak of his career, and it boosted him into the U.S. men’s national team and a place on the 2014 World Cup roster.
But further success in MLS was limited, especially as the Quakes struggled to one playoff appearance in the last seven seasons. Wondolowski did continue achieving personal milestones — reaching double-digit goals in ten straight seasons and passing Landon Donovan on the league’s scoring chart in 2019 — but the trophies eluded him, and he’s prepared to do all he can to finish on a high note.
“Win. I want to win, that’s it,” Wondolowski said. “I don’t have to worry about any records, anything else. Whatever job is needed for me to do, I’m willing to do it. If it’s coming off the bench, I’m going to do that. If it’s handing out water, I’m going to be the best water boy there is. Honestly, I will do whatever it takes to win this year.”
After leading the Earthquakes in scoring last season and nearly guiding his team to the playoffs, Wondolowski knows that his retirement season can still be one of his best. He arrived to preseason in excellent shape, finishing fourth in the infamous beep test and beating guys half his age, and his teammates have noticed. It’s not simply about winning one for the retiring Wondo — rather it’s feeding off their captain’s energy and enthusiasm.
“It would be massive,” defender Nick Lima said. “That’s everyone’s goal and that would be the perfect ride off into the sunset.”
At age 37, Wondolowski is one of the oldest players in MLS, and his ability to keep up with his teammates and opponents will be put to the test. He doesn’t want to hang on for too long, which prompted his retirement decision, but he doesn’t doubt his abilities for an instant. And whether he’s the Earthquakes regular starter or super-sub off the bench in 2020, he’ll be ready to give it his all for the team.
“Yeah, absolutely, and I understand and realize my role will change and probably change drastically in that sense,” Wondolowski said. “But I have also witnessed a lot of MLS seasons, and they are long and grueling and there’s always some sort of patch in the year where if you stay healthy and stay sharp, you’ll get your opportunity, get your chance. I definitely see myself scoring 10 or more goals — that’s my goal this year — but it’s also going to be nice going into this year where I’m just going to try to do whatever it takes to reach the only numbers that really matter: points in the win column.”
It’s the most Wondo of Wondo declarations, and his teammates know such a self-effacing exterior hides an inner passion that drives him to win at all costs. They know that he’s going to have a big impact on San Jose’s prospects this season, and there’s consensus in the squad that Wondolowski will not disappoint.
“Oh, Wondo’s our captain, and he will always be,” long-time teammate Shea Salinas said. “He’s a beast, as usual, and I expect him to ten goals or more.”
Wondolowski finished 2019 as the top domestic scorer in MLS with 15 goals, and his career mark of 159 is sure to grow during his swan song campaign. If he stays even remotely close to that pace this season, the benefits will be felt on and off the field.
“We’ve all seen what he can do to produce goals,” Lima said, “and that’s what we are trying to do, score more goals. And to have the best to ever do it in this league, it is something special. To have the young guys get to see it and the leadership that he brings to the field, yeah, it is invaluable.”
Leaving an impression
It’s difficult for many to believe that this will be Wondolowski’s last season. Almost every conversation with the media begins with a question seeking such confirmation. On the training field, he is constantly imploring teammates to put in that extra bit of effort. And even when his mouth is shut, he’s leading by example.
Wondolowski isn’t expecting the same treatment around MLS that other big stars like DeMarcus Beasley, Nick Rimando, and Tim Howard received in their 2019 farewell season. He knows that most of the country remember him as the guy who couldn’t score against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup knockout round, denying the USA an improbable spot in the quarterfinals against Argentina. That epic miss could have destroyed any other player’s confidence, but not Wondolowski’s, and his drive to move forward, to learn from the experience, continues to fuel his motivation.
“The love for the game never wavered,” Wondolowski said. “There was no doubt about that. It was talking to my wife, my family, and also the team, to see if they wanted me back and if I fit in the plans. It was very warming to talk with the front office and they definitely said they wanted me back. I love coming to practice and I love preseasons, as crazy as that sounds. I guess I am a glutton for punishment, but I do enjoy it here.”
There aren’t too many players in MLS, let alone world soccer, that can make meaningful contributions to their teams into their late 30’s. Time will always win out in the end. But Wondolowski promises to give it his all, and his teammates welcome the commitment.
“Yeah, he’s not going to play forever,” Lima said, “but it’s definitely sad and we don’t want to see him go, but we’re going to get every last bit of him we can get.”
Lima had the fortune to practice against Wondolowski long before he turned professional in 2017. The Castro Valley kid spent time with the Quakes Academy before matriculating at Cal. He was a fan of Wondo long before he was his teammate, and he’s continued to learn from the Earthquakes great the entire time.
“It’s kind of hard to explain because I grew up and had those feelings as a little kid watching him and getting to see what he did when I traveled with the first team in high school,” Lima said, “So yeah, I still watch him, what he does, and take little pieces of his game and that mentality that got him to where he is, and with the national team success too, and implement that into what I do and pass that on to other guys, especially young forwards that come in. He’s our captain and always will be.”
The positive impressions also extend to the coaching staff, led by the indomitable Matias Almeyda, who were impressed by Wondolowski’s impact in the club from the first days they arrived in late 2018. The Argentine coach is especially pleased to see how seamlessly Wondolowski integrates the youngest players into the squad, homegrown signings like 16-year-old Cade Cowell, who projects as a beast of a goalscorer as he further develops his game.
“It will be a pleasure to coach him and all his teammates,” Almeyda said. “I think he can add not only on the field but off the field with all the experience he has and the youngsters that we have. In the same position we have Chris and we have Cade, one is the oldest player and the other is the youngest. If he can transmit everything that he’s learned throughout his career, it will be a very nice mark that he can leave for a young player.”
Almeyda remains diplomatic when discussing the role Wondolowski will have in his last season, especially with Danny Hoesen healthy and ready to return to the goal scoring form he showed in 2018 when he lead the team. The coach doesn’t plan to change his approach to man management either, despite the captain’s pedigree, making it clear Wondo will have to earn a place in the starting eleven just like everyone else.
“Chris will compete for his spot like all his teammates, you know how I carry myself,” Almeyda said. “There will be a good competition in that spot because there’s four players, and the one that scores the most will secure that spot. Whoever scores the most will benefit San Jose. The important thing is that we have a nice group and when they are together they have a nice competition. And that’s what I try to experience in football.”
Starting forward, super-sub off the bench, water boy in the technical area: Wondolowski doesn’t know exactly what 2020 has in store, but he’s looking forward to the challenge.
Looking to his legacy
MLS Cup Final is scheduled for Nov. 7, and everyone in San Jose will hope it will be hosted at Earthquakes Stadium. Wondolowski desperately wants to lift the cup, though he’s not too particular regarding where it happens. Even a chance to grasp the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this fall would be a dream come true.
But in typical Wondo fashion, he’s also keeping his focus on the here and now. The vision of winning a trophy is a true motivation, but it takes more than visualization to achieve the same in reality. Ever the perfectionist — Wondolowski is an avid golfer in his spare time — he admits to remembering every significant moment of his career. The misses push him to train even harder so that he can enjoy more of the makes. He doesn’t expect that attitude to ever go away, even after he hangs up his cleats.
“I will probably always wrestle with that and always think I can be on the field,” Wondolowski said. “I’ll probably be 80 years old with a walker, thinking ‘I could have finished that. I could still be out there running. I wish I was still running the beep test right now.’ It’s more of those what-ifs and missing time with the guys and that is what I’ll probably miss the most.”
He appreciates the process that led to him signing a final one-year contract with the Earthquakes, especially given the longevity of his connection with the club, and he was pleased when general manager Jesse Fioranelli acknowledged the ways the organization wants to see Wondolowski stay involved even after his playing days are done.
“Yeah, that was one of the cool things about being able to come up with this contract,” Wondolowski said. “It was something that we kind of back-ended, with one of those roles we talked about being a scout, especially at the academy level, at the youth and the MLS level. It’s something that I find very interesting and have kept a keen eye on, and I feel I can be a talent that can help the Earthquakes. It will be very challenging but also very fun, and I am looking forward to that as well.”
Wondolowski certainly bleeds black and blue, and in a now-legendary turn of events from last season, he proved his legacy at Earthquakes Stadium may very well include a role in the stands. While there’s no truth to the rumor that he will take over as capo of the San Jose Ultras upon retirement, his audition last September as he served the only red-card suspension of his MLS career showed he was fully capable.
“I am not sure about that yet,” Wondolowski laughed.
He looks forward to celebrating with fans, taking in a game with his young daughters, perhaps enjoying a beverage at the LOBINA, but only after the current campaign is completed. He is the Earthquakes eternal captain, a role he embraces, and for now his focus is on his teammates. His legacy is still a work in progress, but it is one that Wondo hopes will have a lasting impact in San Jose.
“I always want to be remembered as the guy that played the right way,” Wondolowski said. “Was competitive but someone you wanted to be a teammate with, and I hope to pass along some of those lessons and things that I’ve cherished and learned along the way.”