Chris Wondolowski has been nothing if not a model of consistency throughout his professional career. For four seasons at the reserve level and another nine as a first team starter, Wondo has been scoring goals at an annual pace that has put him at number two all-time in MLS, and through all those years, he has kept himself at the top of his fitness game as well.
So why was the San Jose Earthquakes long-time captain possibly the most nervous man on the training field to open the team’s preseason training camp — possibly more nervous than the raft of rookies just hoping to make the team? After all, the soon to be 35 year old forward is the greatest player ever to wear the Black and Blue, and he will one day, when he finally does decide to hang up his boots, most deservedly have a statue erected in his honor outside Avaya Stadium.
But none of that mattered to Wondo on this week’s first full day of training, not with the changes around the club both in the roster and in the coaching staff, most importantly the introduction of new head coach Mikael Stahre.
“I’m excited for a new test, a new chapter,” said Wondolowski. “Besides my rookie year, this is the first time I’ve had a coach coming brand new into preseason, so it’s a bit of excitement and nerves.”
And what was the first activity of the day? The dreaded beep test — a fitness drill that involves escalating timed running intervals that take the utmost in endurance to succeed. Most savvy veterans bow out early in this exercise, letting the young players run it out to be beep-test champion. But not Wondolowski — not with a host of twenty-somethings ready to unseat the captain from his lofty starting line-up perch.
“I actually told my wife, I was a bit nervous for the beep-test,” said Wondolowski, whose seen this drill run dozens of times and knows how challenging it can be. “It was the first time ever coming into today and I didn’t know what to expect. You know, I had to go against 16-year-olds, and I never had to do that before.”
Less than half his age and fresh off signing a Homegrown Player contract last December, teenage defender Jacob Akanyirige was lined up against Wondolowski, as was 20-year-old former New York Cosmos midfielder Eric Calvillo. In all, 17 of Wondo’s challengers were 25 years old or younger, and they were poised to make the oldest player on the roster take a back seat to the Earthquakes youth movement.
Not so, well, fast, said Wondolowski, as he persevered through one interval after another, outlasting all but second-best Tommy Thompson and the hands-down favorite and winner Shea Salinas to take a well deserved third-place finish. Stahre immediately strode over to the top-three finishers, taking extra time to congratulate the Quakes legend on his incredible performance.
And with that, some of nerves diminished, and Wondo could go back to being Wondo once again — the undisputed on-field leader of the San Jose Earthquakes. Thoughts turned more to the task ahead: today, tomorrow, the next five weeks, the MLS season opener on March 3 against Minnesota United. As the Quakes slogan goes, it was Forward As One.
“We are all excited to be back,” said Wondolowski. “I know the veteran guys, myself included, are really looking forward to this year, and to be honest, in years back we didn’t always know what to expect. This year we have a lot of high expectations for ourselves and where we want to be and what we want to do this season.”
The team will really take to the training field by week’s end, auditioning for Stahre and his coaching staff over the weeks to come to make the season-opening gameday roster. Saturday will provide the first proper run-out for the players when they compete in an intrasquad Black and Blue scrimmage in front of season pass holders at Avaya Stadium, and Wondolowski knows there can be no let up.
“Absolutely. One thing is for sure is nothing is a given,” said Wondolowski. “Whether it is myself, or whoever, there is no spot that you can take for granted. Everyone has to go earn their stripes and do what they have to do. That starts from day one and that has to be the mentality.”
Stahre declared from the beginning of preseason camp he would be keeping a watchful eye on every member of the team. He has watched plenty of game footage from last season in order to better understand the strengths of the returning players, and he will get involved in each player’s development during training, young or old, eager to find the best fits for the tactical system he plans to implement. It won’t be equal treatment all around — some players will certainly get the benefit of the doubt based on their experience — but he doesn’t want anyone to feel they can be too comfortable in their position.
So where does Wondolowski stand in the new coach’s eyes? Stahre knows his exploits well, having been briefed extensively by general manager Jesse Fioranelli and others within the organization who know best. The double-digit goals scored for eight straight seasons, the tireless work ethic in practice and in games, the dozen goals behind the legendary Landon Donovan for top MLS goal scorer all-time — Wondo’s feats are revered in San Jose, and Stahre is ready to help the Quakes captain reach even loftier levels.
“I met with him here when I came over the first time, just briefly,” said Stahre. “Obviously, he is one of the biggest stars over here, a good guy and captain of this team. He will be really involved.”
Stahre praised Wondolowski’s commitment to himself and his teammates, and he said he was amazed at how well he has taken care of his mind and body throughout his career. The coach has learned how proper diet and exercise can allow an athlete to prolong his prime well into his thirties, and he said Wondolowski was a model for that conscientious level of behavior.
The motivation to be his best, to prepare when others might take it easy, is a hallmark of Wondolowski’s attitude and approach to soccer since he joined the league back in 2005. He was a late-round Supplemental Draft that year, never expected to be anything more than a squad player, but he fought day in and day out to get his chance to play. That expectation and pressure to succeed is as high today as it was when he was a rookie.
“Especially on myself, I always put pressure on myself, and high expectations and goals,” said Wondolowski. “This year it goes without saying, we want to do great things, and this organization, this fan group, this community deserves it. It’s time we really step up and show what we are made of.”