Chris Wondolowski’s moment of clarity emerged last fall on the western edge of the Sierra Nevada.
Shortly removed from a grueling 2019 season, the Earthquakes’ forward was hiking with his wife and two daughters outside their cabin in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It was a refreshing taste of life post-soccer as he wrestled with the prospect of retirement.
“I love this and I love my family,” Wondolowski thought, “but I want to go again.”
Days later, the player affectionately known as “Wondo” to players, coaches and fans across Major League Soccer signed a one-year contract to return for his 13th season with San Jose, and his 16th in MLS. Even after passing Landon Donovan as the league’s all-time leading scorer in 2019, Wondolowski was burning to redeem a once-promising season that ended with six straight losses and a missed chance at a playoff berth.
“The way that it ended left a bitter taste,” Wondolowski said. “It left some unfinished business. I still felt I could produce and that I could help the team in any way.”
At age 37, Wondolowski will be the league’s third-oldest player — Montreal’s Rod Fanni and Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman are slightly older — when he takes the field for San Jose’s 2020 opener against defending MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC at Earthquakes Stadium on Saturday. Wondolowski also will be among the league’s most productive returning players.
Wondolowski scored a team-best 15 goals last season, tied for fifth most in MLS. It marked the 10th consecutive year in which he has posted double-digit goal totals. Yet with fellow strikers Danny Hoesen and Andy Rios in top form, Wondolowski’s role as starter or super-sub remains an open question.
There are no questions, however, about Wondolowski’s fitness level. The Danville native finished near the top of the Quakes’ fitness tests during the preseason, and he recorded personal bests in speed measurements. No wonder teammates are still skeptical about this being his final season.
“Honestly, I think he could go for many more,” said midfielder Jackson Yueill, a 7-year-old when Wondolowski was drafted by the Earthquakes in 2005.
Wondo’s secret for remaining soccer’s ageless wonder? Basketball. Every offseason, he plays pickup three to four times a week at a public gym in Danville, and he counts it as a full-body workout.
You can guess what type of pickup basketball player Wondolowski is: the hustle guy.
“I play a lot of defense, can run the court real well,” said Wondolowski, who played CYO hoops growing up in the East Bay. “I do try to pick up the best guy and D him up hard.”
Of course, the real source of Wondolowski’s longevity runs deeper.
“He’s got an incredibly competitive mind-set where he wants to win every single game, whether that’s a possession drill, 6v6, or an MLS game on the weekend,” Earthquakes defender Tommy Thompson said. “His will to win is something I’ve never seen before.”
Perhaps no MLS career has climbed as steep a path as Wondolowski’s. A fourth-round selection in the 2005 supplemental draft, Wondolowski was the 89th of 96 collegiate players drafted that year. The Chico State alum toiled mainly on the Earthquakes’ and Houston Dynamo’s reserve squads during his first four pro seasons. He made $11,700 his rookie year in San Jose, earning more money coaching San Ramon Valley High’s freshman team and three Mustang Soccer League youth teams every night after training sessions with the Quakes.
Now Wondo is the face of the franchise, a World Cup veteran, the league’s all-time leading scorer. With his contract set to expire by the end of 2019, surpassing Donovan to achieve that rarefied designation as MLS’s scoring king could have been his cue to walk away. But Wondolowski was aiming for something else.
“That wasn’t what drove me,” he said. “I would have been more inclined to walk away winning an MLS Cup and been one goal short.”
The 2020 season marks the first in which Wondolowski has set no personal goals. He just wants to help the Earthquakes win one more cup, whether it’s the MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup or Supporters’ Shield.
Ultimately, though, his coach knows there’s more to it than that.
“He’s going to be competitive, but the time comes where he should cherish every minute, every practice, every chance he gets to play with his teammates, the fans who adore him, the accomplishments he has done in this league,” Earthquakes head coach Matías Almeyda said. “All that’s left for him to do, which is the best part, is to enjoy the game.”