Chris Wondolowski still moving on from World Cup miss vs. Belgium
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Lindsey Wondolowski calls it the "24-hour rule." It allows her husband, Chris, a striker for both the U.S. national team and the San Jose Earthquakes, a one-day window to process any negativity that arises from a loss or poor individual performance. Then it's time to look forward.
Earlier this summer that rule was put to the ultimate test. Wondolowski had a glorious chance to grab a game winner in the U.S. team's round-of-16 World Cup match against Belgium. He failed to convert, and the U.S. ultimately fell 2-1. Lindsey admitted that in this instance, she made an exception.
"That was a freebie," she said following Sunday's 1-1 tie between San Jose and the L.A. Galaxy. "He has all the time in the world for that, and he's still really upset and bummed about it. You have to move on though."
Outwardly, the San Jose forward has done just that. Since returning from the World Cup, Wondolowski has bagged eight goals and added four assists, although his side has gone just 2-4-6 since his return. In the process, Wondolowski took his season tally to 13 goals, becoming just the third player in MLS history to hit double digits in five consecutive seasons.
"Since he's come back, he's the same Wondo we've come to know and love," said San Jose midfielder Sam Cronin. "It's not basking in the glory of the World Cup or overly disappointed by the miss. He's just put his head down and got back to work, back to finishing, training hard to improve every day."
That's not to say that recovering from that night in Salvador, Brazil, has been easy. As Wondolowski sat down in a conference room at the Earthquakes offices, he admitted that he thinks about the miss often, a statement backed up by the level of detail he offers up when recounting the play.
A legendary performance from goalkeeper Tim Howard and some gritty defending had kept the Americans in the match as normal time neared its end. And then, in the third minute of stoppage time, victory was there to be had. A looping pass from Geoff Cameron was knocked down into Wondolowski's path by Jermaine Jones, and he suddenly found himself alone with only Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to beat.
"I took a peek up, saw the keeper coming out, and I leaned back to go over his shoulder," he said. "I leaned back way too far, and my mechanics went out the door and I ended up skying it.
"I was all right then. At the start of the overtime I was really motivated, I thought I was going to get another chance to where I could finish. I wanted to do that, I was really looking for that redemption shot."
He nearly got it, though not in the manner he expected. After Belgium scored twice in extra time, Julian Green's tally brought the U.S. within one. Then a clever free kick routine saw Wondolowski's sharp pass to Clint Dempsey put the U.S. captain in alone on Courtois, only for the Belgian to save from close range.
At which point the narrative was cast: Howard the hero, Wondolowski the misfiring forward whose inclusion on the roster was down to his renowned ability as a goal poacher. His presence was somewhat controversial as well given that U.S. legend Landon Donovan was left home.
It was by no means the first critical World Cup miss in U.S. soccer history. During the 2002 quarterfinal defeat to Germany, Donovan had several chances to score, but he was denied largely by the brilliance of German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. Tony Sanneh's back-post header in the 89th minute actually has a bit more in common with Wondolowski's effort. Granted, it was a tougher play to convert, but it looked to have equalizer written all over it. He could only nod it wide into the side netting though.
"If I had the chance to do it over again, I would have passed it back across goal to Landon," said Sanneh via telephone. "Even if I had headed it on frame, Kahn was coming across the goal. But as a player, it wasn't hard for me to move on. I had a good World Cup, and nobody defined my effort by that game. And that's what being an athlete is. You don't always get it right, and you have to live with those mistakes. That play doesn't bother me as much as my man scoring on a header in that game. That's something I feel I could have had more control over."
There are some other critical differences between Sanneh's experience and Wondo's in Brazil. The amount of attention the World Cup receives in the U.S. has increased exponentially since then, and Torsten Frings' goal-line handball from a Gregg Berhalter shot made the postgame vibe in 2002 more "we wuz robbed" than an opportunity squandered.
As for Wondolowski, Howard's performance grabbed the headlines, but his miss garnered considerable attention as well. Yet he was determined to not let the moment define him. Afterward he took to social media to apologize.
I'm gutted to have let down everyone but especially my teammates. It's been an incredible ride but I know this will make me stronger.- Chris Wondolowski (@ChrisWondo) July 2, 2014
The response of fans on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive, and even those who took an opportunity to vent at Wondolowski couldn't get under the U.S. striker's skin.
"Twitter is what it is, so people are going to voice their opinions, and still to this day they have strong opinions. That's cool, that's fine. I have no problem with that. I felt like that too," he added with a grin.
While the tweet did draw a mild rebuke from U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley -- Wondolowski recalled, "He said, 'It's not on you, it's a team thing.'" -- his forthrightness earned the respect of former pros.
"Any forward that scores goals for a living, you're going to miss chances," said ESPN television analyst and former U.S. international Taylor Twellman, "But the moment Wondo owned up to it, I remember thinking, 'He'll be fine.' He addressed it to the world via social media, and I think from that extent he was already on a healing process."
That was just the first of many steps. Wondolowski described his feelings in the immediate aftermath as "raw" and said the flight home from Brazil was interminable.
"There was way too much time to think about things," he said.
But Wondolowski has been down this road before. He missed similarly "easy" chances in a U.S. loss to Panama at the 2011 Gold Cup, as well as one for San Jose in the 2012 playoffs against the Galaxy. On each occasion he has managed to bounce back, and made the 2014 World Cup roster after being written off numerous times.
And every time his solution has been to get back on the field as quickly as possible. Upon Wondolowski's return, he turned down an offer from San Jose manager Mark Watson to take some time off. His team needed him, and it was also the best way to put some distance between himself and what transpired in Brazil.
"Even though I was a bit tired, I wanted to get back on the horse," he said. "I got back in and just right back into practice and back into the games. Once I'm on the field, I'm not bothered. That's my sanctuary. That's all I'm concentrating on is that next play, that next touch. That's why I thoroughly enjoy playing this game. I play and they all go out the window, so it was pretty cool to come back."
Wondolowski's nose for goal has been on display ever since, including a typically opportunistic strike last weekend to salvage a point for the Quakes.
"It will always be a negative in that I missed that opportunity, it will always hurt, it will always sting a bit. But I'm using it as a tool for motivation now."
Off the field can be more difficult. The mind idles, and thoughts inevitably creep back toward Negative Town. Communication from the likes of Donovan and U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann, as well as support from club teammates, has helped him maintain perspective.
"They understand the game, they understand that it was one play that could have changed a lot of things," he said. "It also doesn't dictate a whole game or a whole season."
The same is true for a career, a life. Lindsey and 8-month-old daughter Emersyn are reminders of that, with a little bit of help from the 24-hour rule.
"I think that's a pretty fair and good rule that we've come up with because you have to move on," he said. "You have to put it in the past and look to the future."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.