Chemistry can be a delicate thing, as much in the laboratory when working with dangerous reactants as it is in sports when competing personalities take the field. For the San Jose Earthquakes, team chemistry is a vital part of their recipe for success, and over the last month, that chemistry has taken a bit of hit with star forward Chris Wondolowski away with the U.S. men's national team for the Copa America Centenario.
Since May 22, when Wondolowski played 90 minutes in a comeback 1-1 draw at the LA Galaxy, the Quakes have gone without a win, going 0-1-3 over that four game stretch. San Jose has missed its captain on the field and in the locker room, and everyone from the coaching staff to his teammates were happy to see him back in Earthquakes blue and black at training this week ahead of Friday's regular season match at the Chicago Fire.
"Yes, it is very good," said head coach Dominic Kinnear on Wednesday, his back turned on shooting drills where Wondo feels right at home. "He's a big part of this team, has a good spirit, is good in the locker room. On all accounts, it is good to have him here."
Wondolowski has kept close tabs on the Quakes this past month, checking in with the team regularly and watching all their matches. He certainly appreciates every opportunity he gets to play for the national team, but his heart is always in San Jose.
"I love coming into the locker room and going to practice," said Wondolowski after his second training session back with the team. "It's a great group we have here, and when you have guys that want to work, it's why you want to keep fighting for each other and fighting till the end. We want the best for one another, and that's been very important."
The Earthquakes were shut out in the first two games Wondolowski missed on international duty, but they did manage to net three times in the last two games, a pair of draws against Orlando City and the Galaxy. Chad Barrett, who prior to Wondo's absence was a go-to player off the bench, scored two of those goals and filled in nicely as a starter, but Wondolowski is the main guy in San Jose, and his expected return to the lineup against the Fire is expected to give the Quakes a big lift.
"He's been an iron-man in this league and he's pretty much the face of the Earthquakes," said forward Quincy Amarikwa. "Having him out there is a big morale boost, not only to the team, but to the fans. We are looking forward to getting back to where we were before some of the injuries and him going away on the break."
Amarikwa will directly experience the benefit of Wondo's return, as the pair are expected to start at forward on Friday. The former Fire forward was traded to San Jose last summer, right around the time that Wondolowski was featuring for the USA in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the duo really hit their stride as the summer went on.
The Earthquakes, however, weren't able to make the postseason, but Amarikwa and Wondolowski continued to see significant improvements in their development together, and this season they have become a fixture in the starting eleven week after week. So while Wondo's Copa America time could certainly have derailed that momentum, Kinnear doesn't feel it will be an issue at all.
"They're going to be okay," he said assuredly. "They've been around each other so much, and Chris is such a good open person that wants to work with anybody who's out on the field. I don't think they will have any trouble working well together."
Together, Wondolowski, with 7 goals and 2 assists, and Amarikwa, with 1 goal and 3 assists, account for a significant fraction of the team's total scoring statistics of 19 goals and 18 assists. And while Wondo missed four games during the U.S. national team's fourth place run in the Copa America, Amarikwa missed time earlier in the season due to injury, so it is very important to the Earthquakes' success to have them both back, healthy, and available.
"It will certainly make it easier on the chemistry side of things," said Amarikwa. "Wondo and I have played a considerable number of games together now, and we've reached a point where we understand each other's tendencies. At this level, it is the subtle differences that make the biggest differences in games. Even improving one percent can be the difference between losing and winning games. It's nice to have him back, and I know he's excited to be back, and we're excited to get a win on Friday."