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United States vs. Venezuela: Chris Wondolowski thrives in substitute role, deserves start in upcoming match against Panama

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Ricardo Clark celebrates his game-winning goal against Venezuela with the USMNT bench.
Ricardo Clark celebrates his game-winning goal against Venezuela with the USMNT bench.

After making two highly effective starts in the last week for the U.S. Men’s National Team in scrimmages against their U-23 brethren, Chris Wondolowski was consigned to the bench for Saturday evening international friendly against Venezuela in Glendale, Ariz. Looking to perhaps preserve his diminished stock of forwards following an injury to starlet Juan Agudelo earlier in the week, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann sent out Teal Bunbury as a lone forward against the South Americans. Fellow striker C.J. Sapong joined Wondolowski on the U.S. bench.

In a game that started heavily in favor of the U.S. in terms of possession, the number of quality scoring opportunities could still be counted on only one hand. Bunbury and attacking midfielder Benny Feilhaber did their best to break down the Venezuelan back four, but often were stymied by a lack of space and help from their own teammates. It took until the 62nd minute, when Wondolowski and midfielder Ricardo Clark entered the still scoreless match, for the run of play that clearly favored the U.S. to finally put their opponent under constant threat.

In the 72nd minute, following some well-timed pressure from Wondolowski on Venezuelan goalkeeper Jose Morales, a poorly cleared ball fell right to Graham Zusi just outside the edge of the six-yard box. The Sporting Kansas City midfielder took a touch and then slammed the ball over the target. Wondo was left to plead for a pass from his place more central to the goal mouth, but Zusi was right to take the attempt on goal.

Wondolowski would get his first attempt to break the deadlock when in the 76th minute, he displayed a nifty bit of the opportunistic play that has been his hallmark in 2+ successful seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes. Jermaine Jones, who had been pulling the strings for the U.S. midfield all evening long, lofted a long ball to the edge of the Venezuelan penalty area that nearly found the head of Sapong, but instead ricocheted harmlessly into the air. Positioning himself in the path of the flight of the ball and then expertly sealing off his marker, Wondolowski collected the ball and turned a half-volley right on target. Unfortunately, he lashed the ball right at ‘keeper, and the shot was turned around the post for a U.S. corner kick instead of a go-ahead goal.

Unable to punch home the first goal of the game himself, Wondolowski showed his unselfish side in a creative move in the 83rd minute. With Bunbury driving in toward the Venezuelan area, he directed a pass toward Wondolowski running away from the play. Instead of collecting the pass in the direction of his momentum, Wondo expertly back-heeled the ball counter to the movement of the defense and into the path of the advancing Bunbury. Unfortunately for the U.S., the Sporting Kansas City striker fluffed his 20 yarder well wide of the near post, and another golden scoring opportunity went wanting.

Within two minutes, the U.S. were again making life difficult for the South Americans. Off of their sixth corner of the second half, Wondolowski appeared to be taken down while trying to get on the end of Jones’ delivery. Rather than pout in protest of the non-call by Mexican referee Roberto Garcia Orozco, Wondo lifted himself up and moved into the perfect position to receive defender Michael Parkhurst’s cross into the area. The Earthquakes striker’s glancing header beat the keeper to the far post, but slipped agonizingly wide of the target.

Wondolowski and the U.S. Men’s National Team looked primed to finally break the scoreless tie, but time was rapidly running out. In the 87th minute, the hosts had probably their best chance in regulation time courtesy of a well-played attack on the Venezuelan defensive third. Receiving a cross field pass and turning the ball toward the touchline with a pirouette volley, midfielder Brek Shea sprung his FC Dallas teammate Zach Loyd into space toward the left corner of the field. The overlapping defender whipped a cross into the area that was met by Wondolowski at the top of the six-yard box. With a textbook header, Wondo sent the ball low and toward the far post, placed such that it looked destined to find side netting. However, athletic goalkeeper Morales stretched to his left and curled his gloves behind the goal-line and pushed the ball to safety — the save of the game for the Venezuelan man of the match. Wondolowski was left with a dumbfounded look on his face at being denied his first goal as a U.S. International and the probable match winner.

With the game drifting deep into injury time, the scoreless draw looked to be a sure result. However, with their last gasp, the U.S. finally converted for a goal through the unlikeliest of heroes, Ricardo Clark. The former Houston Dynamo man buried a header off a corner kick just as the game clock hit 97 minutes, and gave the Yanks the deserved 1-0 victory over the Venezuelans.

In celebration of the goal, Clark raced toward the U.S. bench to jump into the arms of those not in the game, all the while being closely tailed by his on-the-field teammates. In the scrum that resulted, there was Wondolowski to give Clark the biggest hug of the celebration. This was no accident, as the two former teammates on the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes and later two-time MLS Champions with the Houston Dynamo shared a strong friendship and had not had a chance to revel in such a successful soccer moment in quite some time. Wondo broke off the embrace and mouthed a congratulatory message to his friend before they both turned and headed back onto the field to see out the remaining seconds of the game.

When the final whistle sounded, Clark, Wondolowski, and the rest of the U.S. Men’s National Team celebrated the victory with equal parts exultation and relief. Not an unexpected result for Klinsmann’s team, the manner in which they won was what made the match most memorable. That Clark gained some semblance of redemption for his 2010 World Cup difficulties was only one story line on the evening. For his friend Wondolowski, it was a match that proved his worth to be named a starter in next Wednesday’s USMNT away match against Panama. And in looking to atone for an infamous miss against the Central Americans in last summer’s Gold Cup, Wondolowski will hope join his close friend Clark in having his own moment of redemption.