PORTLAND, ORE. – At length, Chris Wondolowski was all smiles. Gliding through the tunnel underneath JELD-WEN Field here, he beamed in a way he hadn't yet after a U.S. men's national team game.
He'd spent the first half of the USA's 6-1 Gold Cup opening win over Belize on Tuesday in a jersey which had adorned his name with an extra W. As it turned out, it was a W for every goal that "Wondowlowski" would score in that half.
After nine utterly fraught appearances, the most instinctive American goal scorer to come along in some time had banished the heavy pall that clouded his international career thus far. How he had suffered, inexplicably missing chances from point-blank range and scuffing the shots he'd made a good - if unexpected - living out of hitting squarely.
In a friendly against Guatemala on Friday , Wondo - as the 30-year-old part-Native American, part-Polish forward is widely known - made a breakthrough. He got a simple chance and finally slotted home his first international goal. On Tuesday, after a 10-year journey from Chico State University to the elite international game, Wondo came good for his country.
Plainly, Belize's band of part-timers hadn't the slightest interest in participating in a game of soccer from the moment the opening whistle pierced through the thrum of boisterous Portlanders singing away the balmy evening. The USA had more than three-quarters of possession throughout, and occupied itself with opening up corridors through the morass of opponents permanently stationed behind the ball. Herein, Landon Donovan was instrumental, cleverly darting and dinking little passes, sliding through balls and spraying crosses. But Wondolowski would unlock the opposing defense.
In the 12th minute, Jose Torres strode up the left and sent a cross towards the far post where Joe Corona headed it back. It was poorly cleared and Wondolowski was allowed to smash it in from up close.
Several more fat chances and half-chances were left unresolved. But in the 36th minute, when it started to look like the Americans would fail to put the game away before the intermission, Beckerman sent a sharp cross into the box which the wide-open Wondolowski lovingly dropped his forehead onto as he fell to the turf. 2-0 in favor of the USA.
And then, after an unforgivable defensive lapse allowing Ian Gaynair a wide-open header to make it 2-1, Wondo completed his pure hat-trick. Another well-placed cross, sourced from Michael Parkhurst this time, found his carefully-coiffed black tufts of hair as he bundled in the ball to make it 3-1 in the 42nd minute.
The remainder of the game was a formality. Wondo ceded the fourth American goal to the team's feel-good story, Stu Holden, and then watched as Michael Orozco-Fiscal muscled in the fifth and Donovan converted a soft penalty for the sixth.
Wondolowski's emergence on the international scene - even when accounting for the irrefutable weakness of the opponents of the last two games - has been the most hopeful development in this B-team's July campaign, which is aimed at re-claiming the Gold Cup after a 6-year drought and building depth for next year's World Cup in Brazil. Donovan reasserting himself as a premier attacker capable of giving opposing backs fits with his zippy runs is a boon. But the discovery of a reliable goal scorer to fit into the first team could ultimately matter far more. Getting strikers on the scoreboard has been a terrible weakness of the USA's ever since the 2002 World Cup.
Wondolowski always had a knack for scoring goals. He lacks any obvious speed or size or strength or indeed skill. Except for scoring goals. That's his skill. It took that sort of striker to break down the Belizians, the sort that's in the right place at the right time. The kind that emerged from out of nowhere to score an unprecedented 61 goals in his last three MLS seasons after getting just two in his first four. The thing was: he wasn't doing it for the USA.
Now that he is, assuming that he simply has a gift that he's rediscovered would be a mistake. "I try to read the game, I try to pick out certain spots and rely on my anticipation," Wondolowski explained following the match.
"He's very much instinctive," added fellow USA forward Herculez Gomez, whose recent knee troubles handed Wondolowski the start on JELD-WEN's turf field. "He has that nose for where to go and has that feel for the game. But he's also always looking for that space and he's very savvy in the box. Trust me, things don't just happen for him; he creates it."
Things also don't just happen when you force yourself to, Wondolowski found. As he ached and pushed for his first goal for the U.S., his overzealousness eroded his strengths. "It's definitely tough when they're not falling and you start pressing a little bit," he said. "There was a little bit of frustration. I know myself, when I start pressing it doesn't happen."
But if he was upset with himself, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann didn't notice. "I never saw him frustrated," he said following the game. "It was always hard-working attitude, giving everything he has. It's a joy to work with him. I think it pays off for Wondo that he's so dedicated and has such a great attitude."
"Wondo realizes: 'Every minute I'm on the field I have an opportunity so I had better take it,'" added Klinsmann. "He builds his own case."
Less than a year out from the World Cup, that case is quickly gaining incontrovertible evidence.