Chris Wondolowski is a household name in Major League Soccer and on the international stage. Earlier this season, the striker, known to fans as Wondo, passed Landon Donovan in a four-goal performance to become the MLS all-time goal-scoring leader.
It was a journey that started all the way back in little Chico, Calif., when he was a key figure in Chico State's lone run to the national championship match in 2003. So, how did this Cali boy from DII rise to the top of the MLS world?
2019 OPENING WEEK GUIDE: Complete top 25 schedule, top games to watch
Wondolowski gets things started at Chico State
Actually, maybe it was Danville, Calif. Wondolowski was tabbed player of the year for his play at De La Salle High School, but it wasn't his performance on the pitch that had Division I schools scouting him. Many — like UCLA — were watching Wondolowski because he excelled in track and field.
Then-Chico head coach Mike O'Malley saw Wondolowski in a tournament in San Diego. The rest, as they say, is history. It didn't take much to convince him that Chico was his new home. “I fell in love on that recruiting trip," he told NCAA.com. "I stayed with a friend from the Bay area, and I had a blast.”
It didn't take long to acclimate himself. Wondowloski introduced himself to the California Collegiate Athletic Association in a fashion that would set the tone for his entire career.
By scoring a goal in his first match.
“I remember that one, yeah," Wondolowski said. "First game in, we had Concordia up in Oregon. I slipped through, a guy played me a nice pass. I tried dribbling the keeper, he got a hand on it but put it right back at me and I put it behind him and was able to finish it. I got a little lucky, but I remember that one vividly.”
Wondolowski became better each year and so did Chico State. Then, in 2003, the Wildcats had a season that became part of school lore. They set the mark for wins in a season with 21 and fell by just one goal in the championship match to Lynn. Sixteen years later — with multiple all-star, MLS championships, and USMNT appearances, mind you — that match still sticks with Wondolowski.
2019 SEASON PREVIEW: 3 bold predicitons for DII men's soccer in 2019
And maybe stings a little, too.
“Oh man, I’m not going to lie, it’s up there," Wondolowski said. "Hard to put a number on it. If we won, it’s No. 1. I’m still bitter about losing to Lynn. It was such a special run. We still talk about it.
"In 2018 we went up there for the 15th anniversary. We had a 7-a-side tournament and here we are 34 and 35 years old, and we won the tournament. We got to sneak out there and play and it was an amazing time.”
Wondolowski finished his Chico career with All-American honors and 39 goals. He's one of the most prolific scorers in program history. The Wildcats have never returned to the title match.
Wondolowski: The MLS superstar
After Chico, Wondolowski played a year with the Chico Rooks in the National Premier Soccer League. In 2005, his entire life and career changed when he was selected 41st in the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft by the San Jose Earthquakes.
“I had no clue," Wondolowski said. "One of my best friends from high school was drafted right before me, he actually broke the news to me. It was all online, and — I'm dating myself here — it was back when the internet was dial-up. My Internet was shoddy so I kind of gave up after the first round. I was getting ready to go to class and that’s when [the friend] called and broke the news to me.”
The Cali boy gets to live the ultimate California Dream. He grows up playing high school soccer at De La Salle, gets to stay close at Chico, and then gets drafted by his hometown(ish) San Jose Earthquakes. Not only was Wondolowski living the dream, he was doing it on his home turf.
At least for a while.
One year after he was drafted, the Earthquakes relocated to Houston. For the first time, Wondo was out in the world on his own.
“Now I’m so grateful for it, but those were a scary couple of weeks," Wondolowski said. "It was an eye-opening experience, but looking back on it, it was such a special time and place. But I’m very grateful to be back in San Jose. I get to live in my hometown. I have my kids, I have my parents, I love being back home.”
Wondolowski scored his first MLS goal 13 years ago this Aug. 30. He was part of back-to-back championship teams in 2006 and 2007 while playing as mostly a reserve for Houston. In the 2009 season, Wondolowski was traded back to San Jose.
Wondolowski quickly was no longer a reserve. He was on his way to becoming the most dominant scorer in MLS history.
“It definitely played a big part of it," Wondolowski said about returning home. "It helps being in front of family and having that support system.
"It was just the right timing. I learned so much from the coaching staff and the players in Houston, but to be honest I wasn’t ready yet. I was able to learn how to be a professional on and off the field, win a couple of championships, and I was on a great team. It was nice that it all aligned for me.”
And then Wondolowski was unstoppable. In his first full season back with San Jose he scored 18 goals. It was the most in the league, earning him his first of two MLS Golden Boots and the first of 10-straight seasons scoring double-digit goals, a feat unmatched in MLS history and double the next closest streak. He picked up his second Golden Boot in 2012 with 27 goals earning him Most Valuable Player honors for the MLS season. He's also a five-time MLS All-Star.
And on May 18, 2019, at the ripe young age of 36, Wondolowski scored four goals in a single match. The second goal of that game was No. 146, passing Landon Donovan as the all-time goal scorer in MLS history.
Not bad for a kid who started in Chico.
“A dream," Wondolowski said of the last 16 years of his life. "A crazy dream that hasn’t sunken in. You always dream of being a professional athlete, but I would have settled for carrying the water for them. Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, it’s mind-boggling I get to call these guys friends. I’m so fortunate.”
Chico will always be home for Wondolowski
Wondo has done it all. He has MLS championships, has played in the Gold Cup and CONCACAF title matches, with FIFA World Cup appearances on his resume as well. He was the first Wildcat inducted into the CCAA Hall of Fame this summer. The ceremony took place after an Earthquakes game at the stadium.
“That was a true honor," Wondolowski said. "It was a bit surreal and very humbling to see how many Chico State alumni came down to support me. It was cool to look up in the crowd and be able to experience it with the alumni.
“When we were in the CCAA, it was and still is very competitive. There are no cupcakes. It prepared me to grind it out and take every game seriously. It definitely helped pave the way.”
That CCAA tie is still alive and well in the MLS. There may still be a little fun rivalry every time the Toros and Wildcats play. "I’m good friends with [Colorado Rapids striker] Kei Kamara and he went to Dominguez Hills. So I pay close attention to that game, and I follow Chico very closely.”
Wondolowski and wife Lindsey, a former All-CCAA volleyballer from Chico herself, and have two kids and are living the family life not far down the road from San Jose. What's next for the MLS legend?
“I was going to reevaluate after this year," Wondolowski said. "Last year was a grind, it took more out of me mentally than physically. But we got a new coach, and he reinvigorated my love for the game, reminds me how much fun it is. I’m hoping one more year.”
And how about those kids? Is Wondo prepping to become the coach of the next soccer greats on the Chico pitch, or will wife Lindsey have a couple of volleyballers to groom?
“Right now, they’re soccer," Wondolowski said, laughing. "They’re five and three, it’s a lot easier to kick it around, they can’t spike it or anything. We love all sports, we find there is a lot of moral values from playing team sports, so we invite them to play any and all sports. But right now though, it’s definitely gymnastics and soccer.”
He's still very much part of the Chico community, too. After the Camp Fire in Paradise, California in 2018, he and his fellow alums came together for the Chris Wondolowski Soccer Camp, bringing soccer gear and the opportunity to play back to the area once again.
That tie to the Wildcats is something that will never fade from the proud Chico alum.
“One of the great things about Chico is it allowed me to be a late bloomer," Wondolowski said. "Just like my MLS career, I developed later. I started off early and learned a lot, but I’m a late bloomer more than anything.
“Chico has played such an influence in my life as who I am as a player, but also who I am as a person. I have lifelong friends I formed there. It was such an exhilarating time, but I learned a lot of life lessons along the way as well.”
(All MLS stats from Chris Wondolowski profile on MLSsoccer.com.)