When the last World Cup began in South Africa four years ago, Chris Wondolowski's professional career was just taking off in a land and a league thousands of miles away.
Wondolowski was a relative unknown back then, raking in $48,000 a year for the Earthquakes in MLS. He supplemented his income by working as a coach for a local youth soccer team.
But something clicked with the Earthquakes in 2010, and Wondolowski hasn't stopped scoring since. Over the past four seasons, Wondolowski has exploded for 73 goals in 124 appearances. This season, he has five goals in eight games. His 34 game-winning goals, in just 179 fixtures, rank third all-time in MLS history. Consider that Landon Donovan, long a U.S. national team staple, has 37 game-winners -- in 309 games.
Since the last World Cup ended, no professional American soccer player, domestic or abroad, has scored more goals than "Wondo."
Wondolowski, who attended De La Salle High School in Concord before playing collegiately at Chico State, made his first appearance for the U.S. national team in January 2011, and he has participated in the past two Gold Cup tournaments (2011, 2013) along with a flurry of international fixtures. Jurgen Klinsmann, the current U.S. men's coach, has frequently cited Wondolowski as an example for young American players.
As next month's World Cup in Brazil now draws near, Klinsmann will announce a preliminary 30-man roster today ahead of a two-week training camp at Stanford, which kicks off Wednesday. The U.S. will play Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park on May 27 as part of its tuneup. Klinsmann must submit a final roster of 23 players to FIFA, world soccer's governing body, by June 2.
Wondolowski is almost assured a spot in the preliminary group, but things become murkier when it comes to that final list. To that end, Earthquakes marketing have created #Wondo4Brazil placards as part of a broader campaign to drum up support for his cause. During a home game last week against the Colorado Rapids, special guest Steph Curry of the Warriors was photographed with one in hand for the Earthquakes' Twitter feed.
When pundits bring up Wondolowski's World Cup chances, goal-scoring is the top talking point. Yet while that's Wondo's "bread and butter," as Earthquakes coach Mark Watson put it, his overall impact extends much further. In the 2012 season, when he tied Roy Lassiter's all-time MLS single-season record of 27 goals, Wondolowski also provided five assists, which tied for third on the Quakes.
During games, he'll drop into pockets of the midfield and spread play with deft touches and passes.
"He's known for his goals, movement and finishing, but Wondo's become a much more complete player over the last couple of years," Watson said.
Said Wondolowski, "Each game, I'll take our team's shape into account and see how I can fit into it and help out. It's become part of our plan."
If Klinsmann wishes Wondolowski to come in as a substitute against, say, Ghana in the Americans' World Cup opener on June 16, so be it. If it means putting in a shift chasing defenders and closing down angles, he's all-in.
"Since I've known Wondo, he's been a worker," Watson said. "He doesn't like to take days off. Sometimes we have to hold him back so he gets a chance to rest."
Wondolowski has nine goals in his last 10 national team appearances, and three goals in the past two. Some feel his goal in an exhibition against Mexico this past April, long the United States' most heated rival, might have punched his ticket to Brazil.
As Klinsmann told reporters after Wondolowski scored two goals in a January friendly against South Korea, "I think Wondo is a wonderful example that 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."