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Wondolowski yet to make global leap

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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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On the eve of the 2013 Major League Soccer season, the Chris Wondolowski conundrum remains unsolved.

The 30-year-old San Jose Earthquakes striker has gone on the most prolific scoring bender of any American soccer player ever, bagging 61 league goals over the last three seasons – yet has no great identifiable skill other than putting the ball into the net. He is, in a sense, the United States’ answer to 1970s hero Gerd Muller, who seldom failed to score for Bayern Munich and West Germany despite looking entirely unathletic in so doing.

This precious resource, a player with a sixth sense for scoring goals, has gone largely unexploited at the international level. For all his dominance of Major League Soccer – he has either led or shared the lead for goalscoring for three consecutive seasons; equaled MLS’ all time single-season scoring record; and won the 2012 MVP award – yet no good use has been found for Wondolowski for the US national team.

He’s unconventional. But soccer in general, and the American scene in particular, struggles to reconcile outliers with the pack.

So while the US plays, "Wondo," as the well-liked Californian is mostly known, has sat and watched from the bench, the stands or from home. Since Jurgen Klinsmann became head coach in Aug. 2011, Wondolowski has played in only four games; three January camp games alongside his fellow MLSers and as a garbage-time sub for the final 10 minutes in last June’s friendly against Canada. In truth, he made little impression.

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But a player of Wondolowski’s domestic reputation nevertheless deserves more of a chance, an opportunity to acclimatize and settle into a rhythm, the way others have gotten. Even long-time Chelsea defender John Terry seems to think so. During the 2012 MLS All-Star Game, he complimented Wondolowski (who was mic’ed up) with his movement, proclaiming it "incredible" and a "nightmare" for him to defend.

Yet Wondolowski is somehow ineligible for a more serious role on the national team - even though all that movement fits perfectly into the 4-4-2 Klinsmann has most often played. Wondolowski is most effective running off a target man as a second striker, the way he does with Alan Gordon or Steven Lenhart for the ‘Quakes. Jozy Altidore, the US’s incumbent target man, would be the perfect complement.

"I think I fit well into that formation and that style," Wondolowski says. "I can read the game and pick my spots on when to run off. I think that’s my best position." But Klinsmann continues to opt for another workmanlike overachiever in Santos Laguna’s Herculez Gomez. The latter is deserving, but not much more so than Wondo.

Perhaps his involvement is limited because Wondolowski broke out late in his career. He scored just twice in his first four MLS seasons and five times in his fifth. It wasn’t until seasons six, seven and eight that he bagged 61 goals, 21 more than any other player (Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio) in those three years.

Wondolowski came out of nowhere. He joined the Earthquakes out of Chico State as the 41st overall draft pick in 2005 and then spent 3 ½ anonymous years with the Houston Dynamo before returning in 2009. There was never any hype, and few ever got the chance to even entertain the idea of him as a national teamer. He was, and to some extent remains, an unknown quantity. He’s the rare soccer player whose reputation was forged entirely on achievement, rather than buzz.

"I’m definitely a late bloomer," says Wondolowski. "I needed to be more creative and anticipate because I don’t necessarily have the physical attributes – I’m not the fastest, strongest, most physical guy out there. It took a few years to be able to read the game, understand it."

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With the Earthquakes Wondolowski has thrived both on the field and off, acting as his own agent. He made just $30,000 back in 2007 and even less before then. Between his breakout season in 2010 and the present, however, he has thrice re-negotiated his contract, gradually bumping his salary from $48,000 to his new 4-year deal, which will pay him $600,000 in 2013 and more the following years.

"I feel especially with MLS and the salaries all posted, I can do the research," says Wondolowski. "I feel like I know the league and know where I stand, especially being a forward where the stats make up what you can do contract-wise."

Perhaps it’s held against him that he’s achieved all that he has in MLS -- and that in the eyes of some it’s still only MLS. Klinsmann has said domestic performance is as valid as any other but he continues to press his players to seek out big European clubs. He’s handed MLSers Brek Shea, Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi extended runs as starters on the national team. But for a striker there appear to be different rules.

Or maybe it’s simply that whereas Gomez is fast, agile and possesses a hard shot, it’s hard to tell what it is exactly that makes Wondolowski any good.

It always has been. But that likely won’t stop Wondo from racking up the goals again this season. And so long as he does, he deserves more than he’s got.

FOX Soccer's Kayla Knapp contributed reporting.

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