Some take a helicopter to the top, others an elevator. Chris Wondolowski took the stairs, sweating and savoring each step along the way. The Chico State men’s soccer program‘s pride and joy has reached the summit – soccer paradise – as a member of the U.S. Men’s 2014 FIFA World Cup team.
Wondolowski was a track star from De La Salle High School recruited by UCLA among others. But he committed to Chico State – the only school to offer him a scholarship to play soccer – in 2001.
In 2003 he led the Wildcats to their first and only NCAA Championship title match.
In 2005 he was taken in the final round of the Major League Soccer Supplemental Draft.
Wondolowski played mostly for the San Jose and Houston reserve teams during his first five seasons, scoring just seven MLS goals from 2005 through 2009.
A door finally opened in 2010 and Wondolowski exploded through, scoring 18 goals in 26 matches to win the Golden Boot, awarded to the league’s top scorer. Wondolowki was named to the MLS Best XI in 2010, 2011 and 2012, won a second Golden Boot in 2012. He also earned MLS MVP honors, joining 1977 NFL MVP Walter Payton (who played at then-Division II Jackson State) and 1982 American League Cy Young Award winner Pete Vukovich (Clarion) as the only NCAA Division II athletes to win a major postseason award in any of the five major American sports.
Meanwhile, he also finally got his foot in the U.S. Men’s National Team door, making his first five national team appearances in 2011 and three more in 2012.
“Wearing those colors was a dream come true,” said Wondolowski following his first appearance with the National Team. “Standing there before the match signing along to the National Anthem and staring down at those colors you’re wearing. The goose bumps… I get them every time I think about it. I think that’s the only thing that keeps me believing I was really there.”
Still, few believed he was a viable candidate for a spot on the World Cup Roster. Then came the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Wondolowski scored a tournament-high five goals in helping lead the U.S. to the title.
Many were still surprised that U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann chose Wondolowski for his roster.
Former Chico State Head Coach Mike O’Malley was not among them.
“I knew the more time (Klinsmann) spent with Chris the more he would fall in love with him as a person and as a player,” said O’Malley.
Wondolowski is not expected to start for the U.S. in Brazil. Then again, he wasn’t expected to play in college by most, he spent four years as an MLS reserve, and he didn’t get a chance to play for the National Team until he was six days from his 28th birthday.
He just kept climbing. It’s a lesson he learned while helping to lead Chico State to the 2003 NCAA title match and it’s served him well.
“No one believed in us but us,” said Wondolowski. “It changed our lives because we all realized just what we could accomplish if we put our minds to it.”