Why the Wondo wound cuts Sounders deeper
By Matt Pentz
Perhaps the only thing less predictable than Chris Wondolowski’s 90th-minute equalizer was the reaction to it.
The veteran San Jose Earthquakes forward has been a Sounders killer for years. His game-tying goal on Saturday night at Avaya Stadium was his 11th in 19 career appearances against Seattle, by far the most scored against the Sounders by any individual opponent.
There was something quintessentially, maddeningly Wondo about the goal, too – in the right place at the right time for an opportunistic finish that deflected off his lower thigh. You could practically hear the entire city of Seattle groan when the shot hit the back of the net.
Wondolowski is the personification of a ‘Quakes team that has had Seattle’s number dating back to its MLS expansion. The Sounders are now 7-10-5 against San Jose all-time, including a 1-5-4 mark in matches played away from CenturyLink Field.
There’s an unapologetic grunginess to the Bay Area club that seems to irk many around the league – perhaps few moreso than their considerably more fashionable conference foes from further up the West Coast.
Seattle plays in front of an average crowd of more than 40,000 and invests heavily in both its roster and infrastructure. Avaya is certainly an upgrade from the bandbox that was Buck Shaw Stadium, but it’s still no CenturyLink. San Jose supporters are far too willing to take their shirts off, regardless of personal physique, and the ‘Quakes’ pragmatic, defensive-minded style of play has won them few neutral fans.
And yet the Sounders still cannot beat them on a consistent basis. Wondolowski is a convenient and appropriate stand-in for years of pent-up frustration.
I get all of that. Wondo is never going to be welcomed into Cascadia with open arms. What is more puzzling to me is the continued antipathy he still inspires throughout the rest of American soccer.
A Wondo on history
That feeling of ill will dates back to the evening of July 1, 2014, and the sweaty Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil. Wondolowski was a controversial addition to the United States’ World Cup roster, especially since all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan had been omitted from it.
Conventional wisdom was that Wondolowski made the team for one reason and one reason only: As a pure finisher who could be used as an emergency sub if the USMNT needed a late goal.
That moment came in the 92nd minute of a tied Round of 16 game against Belgium, when Jermaine Jones found Wondolowski’s foot with a headed pass and with the goal at his mercy … only for his shot to slice over the bar.
For more casual sports fans who typically tune in only every four years, Wondo will always be best known as the guy who missed the biggest shot of his entire life.
Perhaps more surprising are those inside the U.S. soccer bubble that seem content to let that label hang on him forever, too.
Surely even as devastating a slipup as his has a statute of limitations.
It’s hard to imagine any athlete handling the aftermath of a high-profile failure with more grace than Wondolowski did.
He scrolled through social media mentions wishing him little but bodily harm but responded only with contrition and, later, positivity.
Imagine working for your entire life for a singular goal, one shot at glory, an opportunity most thought beyond you. In a lot of ways, it’s remarkable that Wondolowski so much as earned a single national team cap. Lightly recruited out of high school, he played his college ball at Division II Chico State and scored just four goals in his first five seasons as a professional.
Wondolowski bucked the odds. He pushed himself beyond the realm of what anybody could have reasonably expected. And in the defining moment of his life, with the opportunity to achieve national cult hero status, he missed.
Straight back to work
Where do you go from there?
He went back to work. And even knowing he’s unlikely to get another chance on anything close to as grand a stage as the World Cup, Wondolowski has been as driven and accomplished as a player since as he was before. His goal against the Sounders on Saturday night was his 123rd in MLS play, good for fourth in league history. The 116 he’s tallied since 2010 are by some distance the most in Major League Soccer.
I’ll let former Sounder and USMNT standby Herculez Gomez take it from here.
We’ve always been the same player,” Gomez said last year.
“He’s a guy that I respect so much, because he was never given anything. He went out there and worked for it. He wasn’t highly recruited or highly touted.
“Even when he was scoring goals, it was always, ‘Yeah, but … .’ Even now that he’s the fourth-leading goal-scorer in MLS history, you still hear the occasional, ‘Yeah, Wondo, but … .’ It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Chris Wondolowski will never be embraced in Seattle, maybe for the right maybe for the wrong reasons. I get that.
It’s beyond time for the rest of American soccer to forgive Wondo for the biggest miss of his life.