Okay, by a show of hands, who last night had Chris Wondolowski scoring a hat trick for the U.S. Men’s National Team in its Gold Cup opener against Belize? Anyone?
Given a surprise start by Jurgen Klinsmann, Wondolowski rewarded his coach’s confidence with a virtuoso finishing clinic in notching three goals before the halftime whistle. Sure, the opponent might have been lowly Belize, but this was an international tournament that matters and not some friendly one-off.
A look at the U.S. roster prior to the 2013 Gold Cup revealed a group that was relatively short on experience. Among the 5 forwards on the 23 man squad, only Landon Donovan had scored in previous editions of the biennial tournament, having tallied 13 goals in 28 appearances. Newly signed Earthquakes center back Clarence Goodson, who anchored the defense against Belize, had the third most career Gold Cup goals of the players in the Starting XI. Seven of those eleven entered the Belize game with a chance to score their first tournament goal for the national team, including Wondolowski.
Back in the 2011 Gold Cup, Wondo was a major part of the roster. Parlaying a breakout 2010 MLS season in which he won his first Budweiser Golden Boot, the Earthquakes star forward featured in all three group stage games. Unfortunately, with the national spotlight upon him, he was best remembered for a brutal missed scoring opportunity against Panama in a game the Nats were trailing 2-1. The final whistle sounded soon after with the score unchanged, and the U.S. made ignominious history in losing its first ever Gold Cup group stage match. Wondolowski’s contribution to the team ended before the knock-out stage began.
The striker’s national team career seemed destined to be defined by that miss against Panama. And for over two years it was. He made sporadic appearances for Klinsmann’s team but still sought out his first goal. Wondolowski, the most prolific goal scorer in MLS over the last three seasons — in fact, over any three seasons in league history — could not get it done on the international stage.
But Klinsmann’s faith in the Earthquakes forward never wavered, and Wondolowski was welcomed into the 2013 Gold Cup squad with open arms. Knowing the mindset of a striker — Klinsmann recorded over 50 goals in an international career that spanned a decade — he constantly urged Wondo to keep doing the right things in training and to stay mentally strong and positive. His chance would come.
So only days ago, in a Gold Cup warm-up match against fellow CONCACAF side Guatemala, Wondolowski repaid the faith shown in him by Klinsmann and himself exorcised the demons brought on by the Panama miss. As cool as can be in the box, Wondo did what Wondo does when he finds the ball at his feet — hit the back of the net. His goal for the U.S., the third of 6 the team would hang on poor Guatemala, jettisoned the doubts many supporters, and perhaps himself, had that Wondolowski could deliver for his country. He could and he did.
And then, last night happened.
On the same field where last year he scored three times for the Earthquakes, including his 27th goal of the season to match the MLS single-season scoring record, Wondolowski tallied a hat trick for the United States. An emphatic finish from inside the six-yard box opened the scoring for the Nats, and Wondo burst forth with a celebration that clearly was two years overdue. He added two brilliant headers in the first half that all but secured victory for the U.S. over Belize before intermission. Only Brian McBride and Donovan had scored Gold Cup hat-tricks before him, and Wondolowski joined former Earthquakes Donovan and Eric Wynalda in becoming the third U.S. player to score multiple goals in a tournament opening match.
When the third goal went in, Wondolowski — or as his mislabeled jersey suggested, “Wondowlowski” — had finally made the national team contribution that he craved. The monkey on his back from the Panama game two years ago, flung off after his goal in San Diego against Guatemala, had clearly missed the charter flight to PDX. At last, Wondo would see his name in the morning after headlines for all the right reasons. Calm and confident in leading the U.S. to victory, his path to redemption was complete.