Photo by ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
BALTIMORE — Chris Wondolowski has plenty of work left to do. Yes, he’s fresh off a six-goal tear. But those strikes were served with a sizable grain of salt, and he knows that as well as anyone.
So after torching CONCACAF minnows Guatemala, Belize and Cuba before pro-American crowds, Wondolowski is set on proving he can get the job done under more intense circumstances.
A Gold Cup semifinal against Costa Rica or Honduras looms, as does a final against Mexico or Panama. But the U.S. first must dispatch of pesky El Salvador in the quarterfinals Sunday at sold-out M&T Bank Stadium, which will be largely filled with raucous fans pulling for the Central American side.
If Wondolowski wants the call come World Cup qualifying time, he can’t fade now.
“Anytime you get an opportunity, you’ve got to make the most of it,” Wondolowski said. “Especially now that these games really matter and it’s the knockout stage, you have to show that you can come to the table and compete and show what you got.”
Wondolowski, 30, is nothing if not resilient. With seven MLS goals before his 27th birthday and 66 after it, the reigning league MVP has proved to be a late bloomer. On the international level, Wondolowski made nine appearances before finally scoring in his 10th earlier this month. Then came a hat trick in his 11th match, and a brace in cap No. 12.
It’s an emergence many thought would never come after Wondolowski failed to impress in several appearances under Jurgen Klinsmann — something the U.S. coach attributes to a difference in styles between club and country.
While the San Jose Earthquakes use Wondolowski as a second striker in a direct 4-4-2, the U.S. prefers him as the target forward, typically in a 4-2-3-1.
“He really has that sense of when to go at a specific moment, where could the second ball go, wherever you have to move to be right there,” Klinsmann said. “And that makes him successful in MLS. We always told him that’s what we hope to see in our camp as well. … It took him time to adjust and do well in the way we play, but those characteristics make him a very dangerous forward.”
With mid-tournament reinforcement Eddie Johnson adding competition for minutes up top, Wondolowski faces even more pressure to score. Against El Salvador, his sneaky runs and work off the ball will be key to unlocking what likely will be a bunker defense.
“They’ll probably sit in a bit, try to get behind the ball as many as possible,” Wondolowski said. “But I think if we stick to our game plan and execute our game plan, that’s what’s going to matter.”
Although no one is going to unseat Jozy Altidore as the Americans’ first-choice striker anytime soon, Wondolowski in the knockout stage of this second-tier tournament is looking to enhance his case for A-team minutes over the likes of Herculez Gomez and Terrence Boyd.
If Wondolowski’s fine form does translate against stiffer opposition, he could factor into Klinsmann’s plans once September rolls around and, long at last, appear in his first career World Cup qualifier.
“It’s wonderful to see Wondo over the last couple of weeks getting more and more confident, growing with every goal he scores,” Klinsmann said. “He’s finally kind of proving his point there.
“Now it’s knockout time. You’ve got to be on your toes.”