These are pretty earthshattering times for Earthquakes Youth Academy coach Stephen Wondolowski.
His older brother, Chris, is enjoying another spectacular season, including earning a second Budweiser Golden Boot award after matching the single-season scoring record with 27 goals; the Quakes are entering the playoffs with the Supporters’ Shield, and the academy’s under-16 and under-18 teams are off to brilliant starts.
It’s a lot to take in for a determined young coach. But Stephen Wondolowski, 27, seems far from ready to rest on any laurels. There’s simply too much work to do.
The Wondolowski family, and the club en masse, wants to keep its collective foot on the gas.
“The past three seasons with Chris have just been kind of a whirlwind,” Stephen said. “I think his motto, and kind of the same with our family, is that we’re happy but not satisfied.
“One day not that far in the future, 5 to 10 years, we can kind of look back and enjoy all of this, but right now we want to keep him hungry. That’s what’s driven him the past three years to have the seasons he’s had. Instead of being satisfied with one Golden Boot, he wants to be the leading goal-scorer in the next year and the year after that.”
Of course, Stephen Wondolowski’s main role – when he’s not critiquing his famous brother’s play – is to help usher in a thriving academy program, which serves as a connecting link from the developmental stage to the big stage at MLS and U.S. national team levels.
Many savvy followers have long considered an academy program the missing link in the American soccer chain.
“I think it’s great,” Earthquakes defender Steven Beitashour said of the academy. “I wish it was around when I was growing up. I, hopefully, could have been on the academy team. But it’s great, and I’m excited to see what it brings in the near future.”
All the forces intertwined on Oct. 21, when the Earthquakes broke ground at the team’s new San Jose stadium site one day after the academy teams swept matches against Santa Cruz. The whole weekend showed a franchise, and its fans, walking in lockstep toward the future.
“We had a lot of academy boys out there,” Stephen Wondolowski said proudly of the groundbreaking, “and they were also able to be ball boys for the LA Galaxy game (a 2-2 draw on Oct. 21). We had eight to 10 boys get to be the ball boys. They were super-excited to get onto the field and be a part of it.”
Academy coaches want their players to envision themselves at the top level.
“Exactly,” Stephen Wondolowski said. “The Academy trains at the team’s facility at least once a week, and so we’ve got the visualization that, ‘This is it, guys, and this is where the future is and you guys are a big part of it.’”
To understand Stephen Wondolowski’s drive, you probably have to understand his family.
One of three very competitive brothers, Stephen starred at UC Santa Cruz and played for the Houston Dynamo in the 2008 U.S. Open Cup, among other clubs. The youngest of the boys, Matty, is a rugby player at San Jose State.
The brothers grew up in Danville playing a variety of sports before continuing to excel at De La Salle High School in Concord. Their dad, John, set the tone as a youth coach and motivator.
“Yeah, he definitely has given us that competitive spirit. He’s a competitive guy,” Stephen said of John. “He coached all of our teams in all different sports. He coached Chris in soccer, and he was a soccer player himself.”
Academy technical director Chris Leitch will attest to Stephen’s skill and his drive.
“He brings intensity to his role. He’s a competitive guy. He doesn’t like to lose,” Leitch said.
Leitch, who enjoys the whole Wondolowski family, has taken the academy to a new level after being hired on Jan. 31. The well-respected Ohio native had a 10-year MLS career, including the final three with the Quakes. He was the team’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.
“We have two fully funded teams, and so far it’s been good,” said Leitch of the academy’s success. “We’ve had some convincing wins and so far everything’s going to plan. We’re very excited about the start we’ve had and hope to build on that, for sure.”
The Earthquakes under-18 (4-0) and under-16 teams (3-1) are collectively off to their best start in the program’s brief history.
Stephen Wondolowski said the academy had an initial goal of bringing in talented players and good coaches to create a competitive team. Mission accomplished.
“I think we’ve done that in the first two years. That’s the basis,” he said. “From there, what we’ve been able to do in the past 6-12 months is start to connect ourselves with the first team, which provides these young players with kind of a head start on other players trying to become professionals.”
Academy players have practiced with the Quakes’ first team and played in reserve games. Another academy coach is Marquis White, a former speedy player with the New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids and NEC in Holland, among other clubs, who once coached at De La Salle.
Stephen Wondolowski said developing young players is “definitely relevant” in the MLS. He added that American talent is prominent in the league, but it seems like it’s coming out of college right now and not so much homegrown players.
“A lot of our best players are playing overseas, which is great, but it would be great if we could provide an environment where those kids can grow up with an academy team and then contribute to an MLS team,” Wondolowski said. “The Earthquakes especially, with all the talent from the Bay Area that is across the league right now, I think you could put together a pretty good side with the people that I grew up with and played with.”
Clearly, things are indeed looking up in Quakes Country. Young players are maturing rapidly, the senior team is the talk of MLS, and the Wondolowski brothers are charging boldly into the future.
The groundbreaking brought it all together. Stephen’s aunt, Ann, and his uncle, Mike, were there. It was a family affair, a time for everyone to dream big and keep digging.