Chris Wondolowski. Photo by Beiron Andersson.
Soccer star and Chico State alum Chris Wondolowski led his team to the Major League Soccer finals, was nominated for MVP of the league, and was named to the U.S. National Team—not bad for a grad from a
Division II soccer program
By Luke Reid
“You are my Wondo, my Wondolowski.
You make us happy, when skies are gray.
You’ll never know Chris, how much we
Please don’t take my Wondo away.”
—lyrics by the 1906 Ultras (San Jose Earthquakes supporter group), sung to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine”
Thousands of San Jose Earthquakes fans sing the praises of Chico State’s own Chris Wondolowski at Santa Clara’s Buck Shaw Stadium throughout the spring and summer. But this is no children’s choir. They dress in black, wave menacing flags, and spend much of the match singing obscenity-laced chants directed at the opposition and its fans.
“Wondo” (attended fall ’01–fall ’04), though, brings out the softies in them all. The 28-year-old Bay Area native was the Cinderella story of the soccer world in 2010. He burst onto the scene to score a franchise record 18 goals and led the Earthquakes to the conference finals of the Major League Soccer (MLS) playoffs. In doing so, he earned the Golden Boot, presented to the league’s leading scorer, though perhaps a glass slipper would have been more appropriate.
“If you had to chisel an Earthquakes player out of rock, it’d be Wondolowski,” says Earthquakes Head Coach Frank Yallop. “I’m not sure everyone is always happy for the guys who perform well in this league. But you won’t find a guy who isn’t happy for Wondo.”
Wondolowski finished third in MLS Most Valuable Player voting, led the league with nine game-winning goals, and scored a league record 53 percent of his team’s goals. Then came the phone call every red, white, and blue-blooded American soccer player dreams of: He was invited to
“Wearing those colors was a dream come true,” said Wondolowski as we talked at his aunt’s home in the hills above Los Gatos on a Saturday morning this spring. The Golden Boot shone atop the table next to him. “Standing there before the match singing along to the National Anthem and looking down at the colors you’re wearing. The goose bumps … I still get them every time I think about it. I think that’s the only thing that keeps me believing I was really there.”
These days it’s easy to believe. Wondolowski is wearing the colors once again this June, in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, one of the most important tournaments for the U.S. National Team. With a good showing, a spot on the 2014 World Cup roster might be on the horizon.
Not bad for a final-round supplemental draft pick from Division II Chico State who still lives with his aunt and, until his wife Lindsey (BA, Psychology, ’05) recently bought him a new ride, still putted around in the same beat-up Ford Explorer he drove in college.
He took that old Ford Explorer to Chico the summer of 2001. Wondo-lowski left his childhood home in Danville for Craig Hall, the place he would call home for his freshman year.
Did he wonder if he made the right decision? UCLA offered him a scholarship to run track, after all. But Wondolowski listened to his heart. He decided to turn down UCLA to attend Chico State—the only school that offered him a scholarship to play the sport he loves most.
He never regretted it, he says.
“Growing up, I loved all sports,” says Wondolowski. “But as the years went on, soccer became my love. So when Chico State offered me a scholarship to play soccer, I jumped all over it. I followed my heart, and I’m so glad I did.”
Mike O’Malley was Chico State’s head soccer coach at the time. “His competitiveness and work ethic separated him from his peers, as did his natural ability to finish,” recalls O’Malley. “I thought he could be a special player, with a little polish. But this special? I don’t think anyone could have imagined this.”
When Wondolowski arrived in Chico, the Wildcats were coming off what was only their third losing season in 34 years. Wondolowski did his best to help turn things around, scoring 10 goals and dishing out six assists as a freshman, and then leading the team in both categories again as a sophomore, with 12 goals and seven assists.
Unfortunately, those individual accomplishments, impressive as they were, did not translate to team success. The losing continued through his sophomore season, when the team finished 6-13-0, the program’s worst record since 1966.
But Wondolowski and the Wildcats were about to make a different kind of history. In 2003, the Wildcats won the California Collegiate Athletic Association title and upset CSU, Dominguez Hills in the NCAA Division II Championship Tournament regional final. Then Wondolowski stunned Midwestern State University with the game-winning goal in the national quarterfinal in Texas (see sidebar), and the Wildcats advanced to the national championship. That season still stands as the greatest turnaround from one season to the next in the history of NCAA soccer.
At Buck Shaw Stadium after the game, Chris Wondolowski autographs a Chico State T-shirt for a player from the Wildcats team (above); the Wildcats soccer team surround their former teammate. Photos by Luke Reid.
“I have so many great memories about that whole road to the national championship,” says Wondolowski. “Beating Dominguez Hills, winning at Midwestern State; it was a really special experience. No one believed in us but us. It changed our lives because we all discovered just what we could accomplish if we set our minds to it.”
Wondolowski finished the year with All-America honors. “That season was probably the worst of his career, statistically,” notes O’Malley. “But the things he did that don’t show up in the box score were as important as any goal. He moved into the midfield, which opened things up for everyone else. He’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever coached. His combination of skill and unselfishness was something to see.”
Wondolowski credits his Chico State training for making him into the soccer player he is today. “[Before I came to Chico] I really had no idea what kind of player I was,” he says. “But Coach O’Malley and [assistant coach] Larry Nees helped me grow. I learned a lot about the game. Most importantly, I learned how to fight and battle and scrap. Chico State is where I learned how to compete.”
Wondolowski also learned a lot about himself. A Chico State soccer fan named David Prime, who has autism, sparked Wondolowski’s decision to pursue a degree in special education. He’s still working on that degree, taking classes during breaks in his soccer schedule.
“I became really good friends with Dave,” says Wondolowski. “That was huge for me. It opened my eyes to what I wanted to do in the future. We would go to the park, go to Best Buy, and play the new video games. Those are some of my fondest memories about Chico.”
At the same time, Wondolowski was also learning how he felt about a young woman on the Chico State volleyball team named Lindsey Karkula. They were friends for two years before they started dating. They’ve been married for two years now.
By his senior year, Wondolowski was regarded as one of the top collegiate soccer players in the nation. He was drafted in the final round of the first MLS Supplemental Draft in 2005 and left Chico three days later, in the old Ford Explorer, for training camp.
As with his transition to Chico State, Wondolowski wasn’t sure how his game would translate to the next level. He led the San Jose reserve team in scoring in 2005 and, when the organization moved to Houston, did the same with the Dynamo in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Wondolowski’s MLS opportunities came sporadically over those years, and he netted just four goals in his first 38 MLS matches.
Midway in the 2009 season, he was traded to the San Jose Earthquakes. It was just the break he needed. Wondolowski scored three goals for the Earthquakes that season, mostly coming off the bench. Due to a rash of injuries in the third match of 2010, however, he was thrust into a starting role and responded by scoring the game-winning goal. He tallied in each of the next three games, and he’s been in the starting lineup ever since.
Wondolowski was rewarded with a raise this year. The terms of the contract are among the few things Wondolowski keeps to himself. His humble demeanor, easy laugh, and childlike eagerness make him refreshingly transparent.
Just beyond the shadows of Buck Shaw Stadium, part of Santa Clara University and home to the Earthquakes, lies West Valley College, the one-time home of many current and former Chico State soccer players. On a narrow pitch on a hillside surrounded by chain-link fence, the Chico State soccer team and a pair of the state’s top junior college programs participated in spring action. Wondolowski made his way over to the Chico State bench and sat next to former teammate Robby Busick (BS, Recreation Administration, ’05), still one of the program’s most passionate supporters.
The current players were playing it cool. They tried not to stare but bent an ear to hear the conversation between two friends relishing the chance to reminisce about their time together at Chico State. The pair took turns telling stories about everything from Slurpees to fender benders, their laughter escalating as they one-upped each other time and time again.
When it came time for Wondolowski to leave, current Wildcats Head Coach Felipe Restrepo thanked him for coming. Wondolowski turned to tell the team how proud he was of their accomplishments and that he followed their run to last year’s NCAA Championship Tournament quarterfinals. They hung on every word.
“Score a goal for us tonight,” said sophomore Micah Miranda as Wondolowski said his goodbyes.
“I’ll do my best,” Wondolowski replied as the players poked fun at their teammate, providing a release for the giddiness that had been building for hours.
The Wildcats wore their Chico State soccer gear with special pride as they entered the stadium to cheer on Wondolowski. They were in Wondolowski’s temple, and these young men were of the same flock. The fans noticed, and the team soaked in the association.
The goal never came. Wondolowski had scored an MLS record 12 goals in a row for the Earthquakes heading into their 2-2 draw with FC Seattle, but a sensational save by Seattle’s goalkeeper Kasey Keller ended that streak.
Wondolowski’s disappointment was palpable, but when the game ended, he motioned for the Wildcats team to meet him on the field. They surrounded him, offered congratulations, and lamented with him the missed opportunity. He took a picture with the team and then milled about, allowing them to soak in the experience. Again, they attempted to play it cool. But one player finally stepped forward with the courage to ask Wondolowski to autograph the game program featuring him on the cover. Then they all came, surrounding him, smiling, and taking full advantage of the opportunity for one last bit of interaction.
When it was time to leave, Wondo-lowski thanked the team for coming and set his sights on the locker room. Not so fast. Three times he stopped to sign autographs, take photos, and acknowledge a woman who swooned at the touch of his hand. Not a single request went unfulfilled, save the ones asking for his jersey. (Earthquakes management asked him to stop giving those away.) It was a delightful display of patience and goodwill.
“He’s the best,” doted a young woman working security. This unsolicited piece of information was not the only one I got while walking with Wondolowski. All of the employees take extreme pride in the face of their franchise because of who he is, not just for his on-field achievements.
“I don’t see it as a responsibility,” explains Wondolowski. “I want to do it because I remember going to [San Jose] Clash and Earthquakes games, and guys like Troy Dayak would stop and shake your hand and sign your jersey. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with soccer.”
Finally inside, Wondolowski and I made our way into the locker room as employees prepared to head home. As one requested an autograph for a friend, Wondolowski pointed out Chris Leitch, the Earthquakes player who is his roommate on the road.
“Chris [Wondolowski] is a guy everyone affiliated with Chico State can be proud of,” beamed Leitch. “I could sit here all night and say great things about him.”
And with that, he said all he needed to say.
So check the schedule for the Earthquakes’ next home game, gather some friends around the barbecue, lock arms with your fellow Wildcat alumni, and join the fans at Buck Shaw Stadium in singing, because Wondo will always be a Wildcat we can be proud of.
About the author …
Luke Reid (BA, History, ’04; MA, Kinesiology, ’09) is the sports information director at Chico State.
Connecting With His Roots
A legend lingers about one of Chris Wondolowski’s most famous goals in a Wildcat uniform. After finding the back of the net with a 25-yard strike in front of 3,000-plus hostile fans in the 2003 NCAA quarterfinals at Midwestern State University, he kneeled, took an imaginary arrow from the nonexistent pack on his back, pulled it back on his imaginary bow, and let it fly toward the Midwestern State goalkeeper, known as “The Buffalo.”
“We were at the hotel, and on the local news broadcast was an interview with their goalkeeper,” remembers Wondolowski. “He started referring to himself as ‘The Buffalo.’ Being Native American, I felt that was kind of ironic. The next day when I scored a goal, the first thing that came to my mind was to pull out the bow and arrow. It was cool because my grandparents from Oklahoma, who are very involved in our tribe, were there.”
Wondolowski’s mother’s family is part of the Kiowa tribe, and he is half Native American. He has received a tribal name meaning “warrior coming over the hill.” Thus, the same match that provided one of the greatest wins in Chico State soccer history was also a defining moment for Wondolowski personally. Seeing his family and the rest of their community there made him even more proud to represent his Native American heritage.