Wondolowski – It All Started in the NPSL
Written by Scott French – Chris Wondolowski is an American success story. One of American soccer’s top goalscorers, Wondolowski set records in Major League Soccer and, with a huge performance last weekend, he is climbing closer to a job with the national team at the coming FIFA World Cup.
Did you know that it all started for the 31-year-old San Jose Earthquakes striker in the National Premier Soccer League.
Chris Wondolowski, through determination and a most enviable work ethic, has established himself as one of American soccer’s finest goal-scorers, setting records in Major League Soccer and, with a huge performance last weekend, climbing closer to a job with the national team at the coming FIFA World Cup.
It all started for the 31-year-old San Jose Earthquakes striker in the National Premier Soccer League. Ten summers ago, he scored 17 goals with 10 assists in just 17 matches with the Chico Rooks, who won the regular-season title in the Men’s Premier Soccer League — as the NPSL was known at the time — and advanced to the playoff semifinals.
Wondo, as he’s known, has done plenty since: toiling in MLS’s Reserve League for years before getting his chance, then pouring balls into the net for the Quakes, tying the MLS single-season record with 27 while leading San Jose to the Supporters’ Shield, as regular-season champ, in 2012.
He’s netted 76 goals in his last four seasons, most in MLS by a good margin, and his third career multigoal international in the U.S.’s 2-0 victory Sunday over South Korea has him targeting a job in Brazil come June.
The most fun he’s had on a soccer field? That’s a tough one, of course, but his summer with the Rooks comes close.
“I remember it very fondly,” Wondolowski said. “It was a great season. It helped me immensely. You have to learn to play against men and against great players. It was a great summer, and I’ll always remember that year.”
Wondo was a fine player already, heading into his senior year at NCAA Division II school Chico State in Northern California, where he had been an All-American the previous fall and would be selected to the All-California Collegiate Athletic Association team for the fourth time in the coming season.
Not many D2 stars get a chance to play at the top level, but Wondolowski impressed with the Rooks, who were coached by Dave Stahl, who had co-founded the club 11 years earlier.
“He helped me how to compete at all different levels,” Wondolowski said. “Growing up, you’ve always played in your age group. In college you have a four-year gap, but this was the first time you’re playing against 30-year-old men, of all sizes and abilities, and so it takes you to the next level.”
The Rooks were an astounding team that year, posting a 13-3-1 mark, including the semifinal loss to the Utah Salt Ratz — they would go on to win the title — and placing four on the MPSL All-Star team: Wondolowski, goalkeeper Dominic Jakubek, defender Todd Simmons and midfielder Joao Macedo.
“It was definitely an eclectic group,” Wondolowski said. “Some guys have the technical ability but they might not have the legs, but you can learn from that. Or some guys have some amazing athleticism and try to work on their touch. It’s kind of cool — you get to learn from all these different kinds of things. You learn what work and learn what doesn’t works and why [some players] haven’t been able to make it and try to incorporate the good into your game.”
Wondolowski is a serious student of the game, and if nobody else believed he could prosper at the highest levels, he never doubted it. He just knew he had to work hard and never stop working hard.
He wasn’t a big name coming out of De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif, over the hills east of Oakland, but his success at Chico State — he scored 39 goals with 23 assists in four seasons for the Wildcats — enticed the Earthquakes, enough so that they took him 41st in the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft, 87th overall. Only seven of the players selected in front of him are still in the league, and the only others in the picture for the U.S. World Cup team are Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan and Columbus Crew defender Michael Parkhurst.
“I think it’s one of the things that fuels me,” Wondolowski said. “I love it when people say, ‘I don’t think you can do this. I don’t think you’re good enough, I don’t think you’re strong enough, I don’t think you’re fast enough.’
“I like that, because I love to try to prove people wrong — that’s one of the things that fuels me.”
He played only two games, a total of five minutes, as a rookie in San Jose, but he netted eight reserve-league goals. The club moved to Houston for 2006, and Wondo received more playing time over the next 3½ seasons with the Dynamo — 37 games, 11 of them starts, but only 917 minutes, the equivalent of a little more than 10 full games.
When the Dynamo dealt him to the new San Jose Earthquakes midway through the 2009 campaign, he had scored just four MLS goals but 34 goals in reserve play. He tallied three more for the Quakes that season, then had a breakout season in 2010.
He won the Golden Boot with 18 goals and was selected to the MLS Best XI all-league team, then scored 16 more in 2011. In 2012, he was MLS’s MVP after scoring 27 goals, tying the single-season mark set by Roy Lassiter in the inaugural 1996 season. MLS was a far better league in 2012 than in 1996.
He scored 11 last season, in a difficult year for the Quakes, and has 79 in his MLS career, 15th on the all-time list. Of those ahead of him, only Taylor Twellman scored at a greater pace.
Wondo’s success in MLS opened the door to the national team, and Jurgen Klinsmann gave him his first call-up for the annual January camp in 2011. He made his international debut against Chile that winter and was part of the CONCACAF Gold Cup squad that finished second come summer. He was back in the January camp in 2012 and 2013, and started to rise within the program last summer.
He scored his first international goal in a 6-0 rout of Guatemala in San Diego just before the Gold Cup kicked off, followed with a hat trick in the Yanks’ opening group win over Belize, then netted two more in the next game, a victory over Cuba.
By year’s end, he had 17 caps and the six goals and another invitation to January camp. He made this one count, and his brace against the Koreans last weekend has him prominently on Klinsmann’s radar.
“I think Wondo is a wonderful example of if you are committed, if you are hungry, if you give everything you have over a long period of time, sooner or later you get rewarded for it,” said Klinsmann, one of the greatest strikers of his generation who participated in four World Cups for Germany, three as a player and in 2006 as manager. “In every training session and every day he came in, he gave everything he has, and that’s just nice to see, that a player like him is just waiting for his chances but also hungry for his chances
“He’s a pure finisher, and he smells where the ball will fall or drop in the box, and he’s right there and puts it in. He follows his first thought and just gets it done, and it’s really a reward for his commitment, for his attitude, for his character. It’s cool.”
He’s among the most respected players in the American game, the kind of guy fellow players want as a teammate. His old Chico Rooks ‘mates saw that way back when. Wondo remains tight with them.
“I still have a lot of close friends, and actually there’s two weddings [of former Rooks] this year I’ll be going to,” he said. “This is our 10-year anniversary, so we put a team together for this 7-a-side tournament that Chico State always does, and we got to go up there and play.”
How did the old Rooks do?
“We won it,” he said. “We’re 30-year-old guys, but we still won it. We can still play a little bit.