The Curious Case Of Chris Wondolowski


Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on on 7/19/2013.

The Gold Cup initially appeared to be a coming out party for one of Major League Soccer’s premier goal scorers. But a second viewing of Tuesday’s game tape only left me with a deeper appreciation for the wonder that is Jozy Altidore.

San Jose Earthquakes’ striker Chris Wondolowski made a name for himself with the U.S. national team over the past two weeks, scoring goals at a prolific rate (five goals in three Gold Cup games) and becoming a major talking point in the American soccer community leading up to Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat of Costa Rica. But he struggled to make an impact in a game that was considerably less lopsided than their previous two matches.

My intention is not to criticize a player enjoying a wonderful run of form. Wondolowski is undoubtedly a goal scorer in the purest sense, and his instincts around the box are Chicharitorian world class. His goal in the 66th minute against Cuba was the type of instinctive touch that gets honed in epic after-school backyard sessions on goals made of PVC pipes at a young age.

Nor can I necessarily play the “second string” card, considering I just wrote a piece about the greatness of Landon Donovan while dismissing the competition as a factor.

That being said, a tally of the shots provides a quick example of the difference between the United States’ first two games, in which they outshot their opponents 42-13, and their third game against Costa Rica, in which they had seven shots to Costa Rica’s five. That is a striking disparity, and Wondolowski managed only one shot (well over the bar) in 76 minutes on Tuesday.

To put it quite simply, that is just not good enough. Not against Costa Rica. Not in the Gold Cup.

Klinsmann demonstrated with his player selections for the Gold Cup that this would be a time to experiment and tinker, to learn something about the fringe players in the U.S. pool that have yet been allowed to shine. This is a lesser stage, and the players’ performances are going to be analyzed through the prism of the World Cup and full strength international competition. How will these players perform against the greatest in the world?

Now ask yourself this: What would happen if Altidore and Dempsey had started in place of Wondolowski and, say, Mikkel Diskerud?

My guess is the game would have been over fairly quickly.

That a gifted finisher would score bunches of goals during games played entirely in the opposition’s penalty box does not come as a surprise. Of greater significance is that in a game where teams are fighting for every inch on both ends, that same striker is incapable of stretching the field, making space, holding the ball, or creating chances for himself.

The U.S. lack true depth at almost every position, which is why Wondolowski’s performance and ability are and will continue to be scrutinized. The consensus seems to be that as a late game substitute, Wondolowski could be dangerous for the full squad. However, he lacks the pace generally required of such a role. He may finish as well as Altidore (doubtful), and according to Eric Wynalda he makes the greatest runs in the box in the history of the game (seriously, listen to that Cuba goal call again). But I cannot imagine a scenario in the World Cup–or even in qualifying–when a one-dimensional striker would be of use.

Perhaps on a more dominant national team, but we are not there yet.

Until he proves otherwise, if Wondolowski is scoring goals for the U.S., one can safely assume that game was never in doubt in the first place, that his specific skill set merely helped the U.S. pour it on a hapless opponent.

For the sake of the U.S. national team and this country’s World Cup quest, I hope Wondolowski proves me wrong. His next chance is on Sunday. He may not get another.

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