DANVILLE -- Chris Wondolowski has become such the fairytale story of this run-up to the World Cup that even his own father remains in disbelief.

"I can't get my head around it," John Wondolowski said. "I don't want to get my head around it."

He's not alone in struggling to explain how an out-of-nowhere player from the East Bay, who was barely drafted into Major League Soccer, is heading to the world's biggest sporting event next month in Brazil.

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann named Wondolowski, aka "Wondo," as one of his four forwards last week near the end of a training camp at Stanford.

What seemed improbable just a year ago became real because the San Jose Earthquakes' star already had proved to himself and others that he belongs among this country's soccer elite. He's not the fastest forward or the most dazzling ballhandler. Yet, no matter how hard opponents try to stop him, Wondolowski has a knack for being in just the right spot to bury a shot with his head or either foot.

"It doesn't matter what people say," Wondolowski said after learning he made the team. "Some people develop later. The message is, don't give up."

Overlooked by major colleges and professional scouts, he has emerged from the shadows to become the United States' most prolific goal scorer the past four years.


Advertisement

"It is a hunger he has in him and it won't go away," former Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop said of Wondolowski's goal-scoring prowess.

Family time

Pete's Brass Rail and Car Wash is an institution in the leafy village center of Danville. It's also a local watering hole for the Bay Area's least likely sports celebrity.

Wondolowski, 31, likes to meet his brothers and parents at Pete's in the town where he was born and raised.

Family members congregated at the pub this month just before Wondolowski joined the U.S. training camp at Stanford in his final World Cup audition.

Wondo -- as fans and teammates affectionately call him -- arrived with wife Lindsey and their 4-month-old daughter, Emersyn. The couple was married in 2009 by a pastor who doubles as the soccer coach at San Ramon Valley High, two blocks from Pete's.

Everyone gathered around the family's first grandchild, who seemed to enjoy the attention as much as her WubbaNub pacifier.

"We say she has my temper with Lindsey's stubbornness," Wondolowski said. "That's not really a good combo."

John Wondolowski: "It really isn't."

Lindsey Wondolowski: "When she gets mad, she can't breathe."

John: "I start looking around for a referee. Who's she yelling at?"

The soccer star has a big grin. Here he is relaxed in a homespun setting. Here he can be Wondo the Beneficent, the same guy who will stay for almost an hour after games to sign autographs, the guy who doesn't have a sports agent.

Not the animated player screaming at referees and teammates that Bay Area soccer fans have become so familiar with. Not the guy who boils over even when playing with his brothers and dad in their annual tackle football games during Thanksgiving weekends. Stephen Wondolowski recalled how the neighborhood kids always picked his brother first.

"Not because he was the fastest or the best but you knew he was going to win," said Stephen, who briefly played in MLS. "He can't ever lose that."

His wife, a former Chico State volleyball star, has tried to modify the behavior, though.

"It's from whistle to whistle when he is, um, very different," said Lindsey, a San Ramon middle school counselor.

A year ago, Wondolowski profusely apologized to a young teammate after berating him on the field for taking an ill-timed shot that missed instead of passing it. The obscenities spilled out because Wondo was open for what would have been an easy game-winning goal.

As Wondolowski pursues this improbable opportunity to play in the World Cup, he is learning to corral his emotions. He no longer stews over bad games for a week. Having a baby changed him beyond the specks of gray on his facial hair.

"I get to see her face and it makes it that much better," Wondolowski said of the little girl they call Emi. "I've put my whole mind, soul and body into playing and when I am done I put that into being a father, as well."

Wondo has discovered balance.

An unlikely path

Wondolowski's place in the U.S. national team discussion could not have been predicted even a year ago.

No major college recruited him for soccer in 2001. Cal and UCLA wanted the Concord-De la Salle High graduate as a middle-distance runner.

He played for the only school interested in his soccer skills -- Division II Chico State.

After a successful collegiate career, Wondolowski tried out at a Major League Soccer combine held in the East Bay. After a poor first day, he wasn't asked to return.

But his dad, a former Cal soccer player and longtime youth coach, encouraged him to try again. What the heck?

This time he did so well that the Earthquakes made him one of the final selections of a draft that was expanded that year in order to develop more players.

Wondolowski played one season in San Jose, then moved with the franchise when it became the Houston Dynamo. He scored four goals in four seasons, spending most of his time with the reserve team.

The Quakes, who re-entered MLS in 2008, brought him back in 2009 when they sent struggling forward Cam Weaver to Houston.

"We're thinking, 'Wondo's a nice player,' " general manager John Doyle said of the trade. "Here's a kid from the Bay Area, he's a fighter. Let's bring him in."

The Quakes were happy with the move but they didn't have many opportunities for Wondolowski. "He was our fifth forward," Doyle said.

By early 2010, the players ahead of Wondo had suffered assorted injuries. He struck at his opportunity, scoring 18 goals in 28 games to win the Golden Boot as the league's top goal scorer.

Many soccer pundits called it a "one-off."

Wondolowski proved it was more than a fluke. He again won the prize in 2011 by scoring 16 more goals, then he tied a single-season MLS record with 27 goals in 2012, the year he also was the league's most valuable player.

But Wondolowski had an inauspicious start with the U.S. team in his first call-up at any level in 2011. After failing to score in his first nine appearances, Wondolowski again was relegated to the bottom of the depth chart until another chance presented itself.

Last summer, Wondo joined a "B" team for the Gold Cup tournament against regional rivals from the Americas.

"He was missing those goals with us, then the Gold Cup came, and Wondo came," Klinsmann said.

The goals haven't stopping coming.

Wondolowski has scored nine times in his last 10 international appearances heading into an exhibition Tuesday at Candlestick Park against Azerbaijan.

Doyle, a former defender for the U.S. Olympic and World Cup teams, said detractors complain Wondo scored against mediocre opponents last summer. But one of those goals came against Mexico in April. "That's a pretty good team," he said.

Wondo's GM watches his magic more than anyone. So how does he do it? What makes him such a good scorer?

"He has an innate ability to make a run to the right spot," Doyle said. "He just makes the right decision."

'Warrior'

On a diverse national team that features players from Germany, Iceland and Norway, Wondolowski is the only Native American. His mother, Janis Hoyt, is from the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma.

Wondo's tribal name is Bau Daigh, which means "warrior coming over the hill."

Wondolowski and three siblings embraced their Native American heritage with the guidance of their mother, a Cal graduate who lives in Danville.

They equally were immersed in local sports, following the A's, Raiders, Warriors and all iterations of professional soccer, including the indoor Grizzlies.

"I've changed their diapers in every stadium in the Bay Area," John Wondolowski said.

The boys also remember watching a show called "Soccer Made in Germany" on local public television. Klinsmann was one of their favorite players.

Twenty years ago, the Wondolowskis peered through a fence to watch Brazil practice at Santa Clara University before its World Cup game against the United States. It planted a seed, but the World Cup still seemed foreign.

"It was way easier to picture ourselves playing in the World Series or the Super Bowl," said Stephen Wondolowski, who coaches at the Earthquakes Youth Academy.

Now Wondo has marshaled everything he has into reaching the World Cup.

"There is a sense I want to have no regrets," he said. "When I first started playing MLS I was playing not to make a mistake, playing just to get by, playing just to fit in."

Now he will be playing on the ultimate stage, one he didn't know enough about to even dream of as a child. But Wondo has proved that when he gets onto the pitch with a soccer ball at his feet, no stage is too big.

"It doesn't matter where it is, what it is," he said. "It's still the same game."

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.