CenterLine Report: Wondo back in Blue and Black

Quakes' leading goal-scorer returns after July with USMNT

For many, the summer is a time for packing up your bags, putting a stop on your mail, and jetting off to some far-flung locale for a much deserved vacation, maybe the white sands beaches of Cancun, or the bustling tourist centers in Europe.

For San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski, the plan was the same, even if the destinations were a little less exotic. Trading in the customary trip abroad for a more domestic adventure, Wondolowski nonetheless had a July journey to remember.

It seems so long ago the last time Wondo slipped on a Quakes jersey, coming as it did back in late June for the California Clasico at Stanford Stadium. Just over a week removed from suffering a toe contusion that kept him out a game due to injury for the first time since 2009, Wondolowski valiantly laced up his specially fitted boots and contributed to a total team effort that saw the Earthquakes complete a dramatic come from behind in stoppage time 3-2 win against the LA Galaxy. Within days, he was on his way to join the U.S. Men’s National Team in preparation for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

The Earthquakes leading goalscorer, though reluctant to leave his club at such a pivotal point in the season, was motivated to make amends for his previous Gold Cup opportunity two years earlier. Also the reigning MLS Golden Boot winner in 2011, Wondolowski infamously missed a sitter in front of goal against Panama in that year’s competition as part of a losing effort that remains the Yanks only one ever in the group stage of the tournament.

Since that forgettable instance, Wondo, through numerous appearances with the national team, had still not scored for his country despite raking up more than 50 goals for his club. So when he boarded a plane for the Southland to join up with his U.S. teammates, he knew the upcoming regional championship presented itself as a stage for redemption. 

But before the Gold Cup proceedings began, the USMNT played a tune-up match against Central American upstarts Guatemala in San Diego. And coming off the bench to start the second half, Wondolowski netted the third goal in a 6-0 rout of Los Chapines, his first ever as a member of the national team. With the proverbial monkey off his back, the streaky striker was primed to make an impact in the Gold Cup.

Wondolowski delivered beyond anyone’s expectations, scoring 5 goals in the first two group stage matches in the tournament. His famously misspelled jersey grabbed most of the spotlight during a hat-trick performance against Belize, but to those that saw the confidence and passion in his eyes it came as no surprise. The 2 more goals he scored against Cuba propelled his name into the debate as to who would represent the U.S. in next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.

From Oregon, Utah, and Connecticut in the group stage to Maryland, Texas, and finally Illinois in the knockout rounds, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men would steamroll the competition over 6 games to capture the U.S.’s fifth Gold Cup championship. And despite not featuring in the final, Wondolowski captured a share of the Golden Boot award along with teammate Landon Donovan and Panama striker Gabriel Torres, courtesy of his 5 goal outburst to open the tournament. He joked at the time that he might have to timeshare the trophy with the other two top goal scorers, but Wondolowski later confirmed that CONCACAF sent him home with his own award, a golden boot suitable for inclusion on his ever crowded mantelpiece.

Mission accomplished for the U.S., Wondolowski had one more stop on his journey home: the 2013 MLS All-Star game in Kansas City. The midsummer match-up with Serie A giants A.S. Roma provided a welcome respite from the intensity of the Gold Cup, and Wondolowski relished every moment of the event. On the eve of the game, he joined up with some of his teammates to produce an absurdly funny, tongue-in-cheek rap video promoting MLS as “better than the rest.” Clearly a better goal scorer than a rapper, Wondo made the most of the opportunity to bond with some of the best in MLS.

The All-Stars were ambushed by Roma in the game itself, trailing by a score of 1-0 within four minutes of kickoff and never really getting back into the affair before succumbing 3-1 to the Italians. Wondolowski played the entire second half, but even with his confidence riding high following the Gold Cup, could not crack the solid Roma backline. The experience of facing such a strong defense was still valuable, even if it came in an exhibition game, and Wondo hoped to learn from it and translate those lessons into success for the Earthquakes.

The next morning arrived bright and early, and with it a new month on the calendar, as Wondolowski made he was to the Kansas City airport to embark on the last leg of his continental adventure. Would Wondo know the way to San Jose, 75 days after he last appeared at Buck Shaw Stadium? After all, the man himself tweeted that he might need to use the navigation feature on his phone to find his way home.

By Friday, safely back in the Bay Area, Wondolowski was already in full swing practicing with his Earthquakes teammates at the club’s training facility in preparation for an important weekend match against Chivas USA. Confident that the experience he gained during his trek the month before, Wondo pronounced himself ready for the task at hand: turn the Earthquakes season around and get the team into the MLS playoffs. The path will not be easy, but it’s the kind of challenge on which he thrives.

It’s been too long, Wondo. Welcome home to San Jose!

Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas