The sold-out crowd at Buck Shaw Stadium was still buzzing after Khari Stephenson had sent a blistering shot into the back of the net to give the San Jose Earthquakes a 1-0 lead over the Houston Dynamo. Behind the goal, the Ultras went shirtless in celebration, and the Quakes bench congratulated their mates.
And at the opposite end of the field, nestled in the corner stands sat forward Chris Wondolowski, his baby daughter Emersyn nestled in his arms. Wondo was merely a spectator that evening, his fate for the next month sealed days before when he heard the second best news of the last year. He had as his guest, Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis, also not featuring in the game, for the very same reason. His own children surrounding him, Davis did not share the enthusiasm of his host.
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It wasn't just another team meeting for the U.S. men's national team players last Thursday. A hard-fought training camp, started the week before, at Stanford University, had to that point seen 30 hopefuls making their cases to earn a spot on the plane to Brazil. A look around the room and some quick mental math helped those in the room realize that only 23 players were in attendance. Something was afoot.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann strolled into the meeting, making small chat with the first few guys he encountered, just as the realization swept through the players that they had made the U.S. final roster. Who was missing? But, more importantly, who had made the cut?
Some players, they were relieved that the announcement had come. Others were elated by the news that their years of hard work had come to fruition. All of them, secretly to themselves, but collectively in spirit, chanted "We are going to Brazil!"
And for two of the 23, Klinsmann's announcement was the culmination of a dream that had begun nearly a decade ago, on the practice fields outside nearby Spartan Stadium in San Jose. Best friends Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski shared a look and then a hug: the biggest moment on their professional careers had arrived.
"It gave me chills," said Wondolowski, recalling the moment. "Right after, guys were congratulating one another and we had a ‘bromance' moment when we locked eyes and gave each other a big hug. It was one of those things where it was relief, excitement, all those emotions wrapped into one in that hug. We each know how much work the other has put into it and how much it means to each other."
Davis, a four-year MLS veteran, and Wondolowski, a supplemental draft pick rookie, met for the first time as members of the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes. They forged a friendship that would follow them when the team was relocated to Houston the next year, and even when Wondolowski was traded back to the Quakes in 2009. They and their families remained close through it all, and to this day they share vacations in the off season. Making the World Cup roster? Just another topic of conversation on those outings.
"It did," said Davis, the day after the announcement. "I can't tell how serious we were about it, but with the mindset that both of us have, we both wanted it, I'll tell you that. That's 100 percent serious. We knew it was going to be unbelievably hard, a lot hard work put in but it kind of proves, don't ever shut the door on your dream."
From breaking through as MLS youngsters, to flirtations with the national team in January training camp, the two thirty-somethings had outlasted their critics and were U.S. men's national team World Cup teammates. They are going to Brazil.
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Davis had spent time with the national team under previous head coach Bruce Arena, making his debut for the squad during the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Still developing his skills under the tutelage of Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear, Davis appeared set to make his mark for the Yanks, possibly for many years to come. The midfielder with the prized left foot had made it, or so he thought.
Arena was fired and replaced with Bob Bradley. With a new coach, the Yanks took on a different look in the ensuing years, a look that did not include Davis. A national team purgatory that would last for four years did not discourage the Dynamo, but rather motivated him to be ready for any second chance that might come his way.
"You never know," said Davis. "For me, you look back at my story, I truly thought my national team opportunity was over a few years ago. Then I got the opportunity to go into January camp and told myself I was going to make the most of it and thankfully I'm standing here today."
And he'll be standing with his best friend, who also traveled a tortured path to national team recognition, though one that started much later and nearly finished as soon as it began. Wondolowski had his first call-up to the national team under Bradley, in January 2011, and featured in the Gold Cup that summer. The MLS Golden Boot winner the season before, Wondo struggled with the Yanks and seemed to have lost his chance to make his mark on the international scene. A famous miss against Panama in the tournament's group stage appeared likely to be the defining moment of his national team experience.
But Wondolowski kept at it with the Earthquakes, and he led the league in scoring for a second straight season. While on holiday in the off season, he received news that he was back on the national team radar, this time under the tutelage of Klinsmann. And in the 2013 Gold Cup, in a redemptive goal-scoring streak, Wondolowski netted for the Nats, and he has never looked back.
"I know Chris has worked oh so hard for this opportunity," said Davis. "If you look at where he has come from, we were playing on the Dynamo together and he wasn't even starting for our team or really getting an opportunity there and just the change of environment, how he has excelled, how he has kept his mind into it. He's always been a winner, and he's always worked extremely hard."
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If the paths of Davis and Wondolowski to make the 2014 World Cup roster can be summarized by one word, it would be "perseverance." The 32-year old Davis and the 31-year old Wondolowski defy the odds when it comes to players making their first World Cup. But neither player knows the meaning of giving up, and each has elevated his game to new heights in MLS, waiting for the chance to shine on the international stage.
"Absolutely," said Wondolowski, "perseverance has been the most apt word for it, especially for Brad. He was there, and then a bit of dry spell when he wasn't called in and didn't have much run. It has been some of the same for myself. A lot of guys could have just written it off or gotten mad or pouted over it. Instead, it drove us to work harder and made us better players."
Fueled by conversation during the offseason and supported by families that never let them walk away from their dreams, the two friends are quick to give each other credit for being the chief motivator. That two weeks ago they arrived at Stanford, one roster cut away from playing on the biggest soccer stage, in hindsight seems, for most, almost unimaginable. And now, they've proved all their critics wrong and will represent the U.S. as late-bloomers on the international soccer scene.
"Hard work really does pay off," said Wondolowski. "If you don't give up at it, you have a chance to live your dream. It's always kept me driving forward."
So, with weeks to go until the U.S. begins play in the "Group of Death" with a match against rival Ghana, that dream has become a reality. Perhaps yet, the dream could get even better. Perhaps a Davis cross, courtesy of that cultured left foot, curled into the area will find the head of Wondolowski, ghosting into space behind his defensive marker, and settle into the back of the net.
"That's definitely been talked about," said Davis. "We talk about that all the time, for sure. We talk about, even in training, the different times we've gone into January camp. There are definitely jokes and laughs, but that would definitely be a great moment for us if we were able to connect, for sure."
The first step to doing is dreaming.
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The two friends, their kids restless in their seats at the Buck, watched the Earthquakes complete a 3-0 victory over the Dynamo Saturday night - the short respite from U.S. national team training providing a perfect moment to share time together and reflect on what might lie ahead in Brazil.
"We've always talked about the World Cup," said Wondolowski. "It's always been there, that ultimate pinnacle, the dream we've been discussing. It's cool that we've both made it."
Prior to boarding the plane, Davis and Wondolowski, along with their teammates, will play in three send-off matches on home soil in the coming two weeks. Up first is a game at nearby Candlestick Park against Azerbaijan on Tuesday, May 27. Following that, a whirlwind tour of the East Coast with games against Turkey and Nigeria awaits them. Attendance at an MLS game will have to wait another few weeks.