Promise Keeper

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Jonathan Bartlett

After the Miss

Chris Wondolowski looks back on the World Cup

Chris Wondolowski wants to explain. Really, he does. He wants to go back for a moment to that afternoon in Salvador, Brazil, and that plot of grass just outside the six-yard box in the Arena Fonte Nova, to the tie game against Belgium and the 92nd-minute header from Jermaine Jones that seemed to float for a moment, lifted by possibility, before dropping to Wondolowski’s foot and bouncing over the hands of Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, then over the crossbar and into the stands, sending the World Cup Round of 16 match to extra time, where the United States’s loss was finally sealed.

He’ll talk about it. That’s what we want, right? As if there’s some penance in acknowledging that it happened. Acknowledging that the entire nation — much of which did not previously know his name, some of which had never bothered to watch a soccer match until that afternoon — all gasped at once, Americans allowing themselves to believe that an overmatched U.S. team would be saved by a superhuman Tim Howard and a late moment of good fortune. Acknowledging that the chance was there, that it was his, and that he missed.

Whether out of duty or in search of catharsis or simply because he’s really, really nice, Wondolowski is willing to get into all of that. But right now he’s leaning in close to a bespectacled octogenarian woman who cares little about Brazil, only that he was there, and that he was taking this moment, on a Friday afternoon at a rural Oklahoma diner in early December, to look at family photos.

“There’s your mom,” she says. “Oh, and there’s your Grandpa Bill.” There’s one of Wondolowski — “Christopher,” she calls him — wearing overalls and a smile. His MLS season over and the memory of his World Cup experience finally beginning to fade, Wondolowski has come to southwest Oklahoma to visit members of his Kiowa Native American tribe. Wondolowski’s mother is Kiowa,1 and though he grew up in California, he spent many summers and holidays here in Oklahoma, visiting his people. He’s come back now for a weekend of celebration. There have been sightseeing tours and meetings with tribal elders. Soon there will be a soccer clinic and a powwow in his honor. Right now there is lunch. He greets distant relatives who wear T-shirts imprinted with his photo. He signs jerseys for friends of friends of friends. He takes a photo with a representative from the local chamber of commerce. “Oh, wow!” he says when she introduces herself. “So great to meet you!”

When there is no one left to greet, Wondolowski takes a sip of his sweet tea and looks up. Long ago, his wife gave him a 24-hour rule. Any failure could be mourned for one day. That was it. After 24 hours, it was time to move on. It’s been six months since that afternoon and Brazil, and we’re 5,000 miles away, in a room full of people he could never let down even if he tried. But here, now, the 24-hour rule has no jurisdiction.

“I’m not over it,” he says. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.” After another pause, he adds, “I actually think that’s OK.”

wondolowski-chris-world-cupKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“Were you scared when you were down there at the World Cup?”

That’s Dorothy Whitehorse Delaune. She’s 82. Her business card labels her a “storyteller,” “singer,” and “friend,” and she’s sitting on a couch in a relative’s home, where paintings of tepees and photos of Pope Francis line the walls. She clutches Wondolowski’s hands.

“Ahhh, maybe a little bit,” he says with a laugh. “I was excited. Anxious, but it was exciting times. I loved it.”

That’s the thing, Wondolowski says later. Years ago, he really would have been scared. The possibility of a mistake would have overwhelmed him. He learned then how fear could take hold of a player’s mechanics, giving muscles amnesia and dulling motions that should be precise. He’d felt that fear when he first entered MLS and again when he first went to camp with the national team. But by the time he got to Brazil, the fear had long since vanished. “I knew I was going to get a chance,” he says, “and I knew I was going to score.”

He was half-right. The ball fell to Wondolowski, and he saw Courtois, perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world, charging toward him. Rather than catching the ball on a clean volley, Wondolowski connected after a short bounce. On the ESPN broadcast, Taylor Twellman nearly gasped: “He’s in.” Twellman’s boothmate, Ian Darke, brought American fans out of their seats: “Wondolowskiiiii!!!!!!!”

“I had to reach for the ball, just a little bit,” Wondolowski says now. “I just kind of got caught in a little bit of an awkward position, and the ball landed in front of me. It’s one of those things where you should at least put it on frame. You should still score. But I didn’t. It’s just a thing where a little bit here and a little bit there doesn’t go your way.”

He tried to loft it over Courtois’s arms. He did — but he also lofted it over the entire goal. The image played in living rooms and sports bars around the world, and for a moment, Americans were despondent. But if you were watching on television with the volume on, it soon became difficult to know how to feel. “Flag was up anyway,” Darke said, suggesting that Wondolowski had been offside. “Flag was up anyway, wouldn’t have counted.” Confusion overwhelmed anger. Perhaps the miss saved us from a more violent anger had the goal been scored and then called off.

Yet replays showed that Wondolowski was clearly onside. The box score showed that the U.S. had no offside calls against them. More likely, it seemed, the linesman had lifted his flag not to call offside, but to signal a goal kick. Darke was simply confused. Had the shot gone in, it seemed, the goal would have counted and the U.S. would have won. Cameras showed USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann with his hands over his mouth in disbelief. Wondolowski wore the exact same expression.

“I was mad,” he says. “I was frustrated. But at the same time, after a second, I was still really positive. I thought I’d get another chance, and I thought I’d bury it.”

They called him a hippie and a communist, a terrorist. Satan. They called him pendejo and cabron and basura. They insulted him in English and Spanish, in Turkish, Indonesian, and Portuguese.

There would be no second chance, at least not like that. Instead, there were 30 minutes of extra time, begun with two Belgian goals in quick succession  one by Kevin De Bruyne on a pass from Romelu Lukaku, the other by Lukaku on a pass from De Bruyne. The USMNT’s Julian Green — along with Wondolowski, one of the most derided selections on the roster — volleyed in a goal to make it 2-1 in the 107th minute, and Wondolowski hit Clint Dempsey with a slick through ball on a set piece that nearly tied the game minutes later. Yet the extra 30 minutes only seemed to confirm what the first 90 had proven: Belgium was better, and the United States was lucky to have a chance to steal the win.

The final whistle blew and Wondolowski stood on the field, in shock. “In that moment,” he says, “I was just gutted. It was just such an empty feeling. It was like the Southwest commercial — ‘You want to get away.’ It had been so amazing, such a fun ride, but all of a sudden it was over, and it ended like this. I just wanted to be somewhere else.”

Wondolowski went back to the locker room and showered and dressed. Moments later, he did something that no athlete in the aftermath of failure should ever, under any circumstances, do: He checked Twitter. His mentions had been subsumed by venom. People around the country — around the world — let him know what they thought of his miss. They called him an asshole. They called him a piece of shit. They called him a hippie and a communist, a terrorist. Satan. They called him pendejo and cabron and basura. They insulted him in English and Spanish, in Turkish, Indonesian, and Portuguese. They said that Landon Donovan would have made it. They said that Juan Agudelo would have made it, that their grandmother or a one-legged man would have made it too. They compared him to Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman and Nicholas Brody. They told him to retire, to kill himself, to burn in hell. They said fuck him. They said fuck his dog. They suggested that he be sent to Siberia, that he fall in a pit of acid, that he be lynched in front of his family. They told him to go fuck himself. They told him to go fuck a Belgian waffle. They threatened, with blunt forthrightness if not proper grammar, to light him on fire.

There was, however, a little positivity. Some said they were proud, so proud of the United States men’s national team. Well, the entire team except for him.

Wondolowski sat and scrolled through the mentions. For at least a few minutes, he couldn’t look away. “Maybe I shouldn’t have looked at it,” he says, “but part of me was really thinking, I need to make sure there aren’t any serious threats on here. I need to make sure no one’s going to really come after my family. It sounds crazy, but, I mean, it was the World Cup.”

There were no actionable threats, but the hatred for Wondolowski had massed into something cohesive and tangible, as if the entire country had conspired to volley misspelled insults at a man in a locker room a continent away. He’d been compared to Bartman and Buckner, but those men’s mistakes had invited vitriol from fans tied to Chicago and Boston. Wondo’s mistake brought groans from across both of those cities, as well as all others in between. Celebrations of Howard’s 16-save performance and expressions of pride for the team’s overall success helped to quiet the anger, as did the confusion over whether Wondo had been offside. But still, perhaps never since the advent of social media had one player’s mistake resonated so profoundly across the entire country.

Wondolowski decided to respond. He posted on Twitter: “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.” Immediately, the venom eased and messages of support poured in. Here was something more rare than a world-class goal: a prominent athlete peeling away the postgame veneer, showing us the pain we assumed he must feel. “I wanted to let people know I’m a fan too,” he says. “I’m bummed too. I’m mad too. I know I’ll miss other chances. I know I’ll make some chances. But it’s just, man, I really wish I had made that one.”

All of this raises a question: How angry, really, did American fans have the right to feel? It’s not like the United States deserved to win. Belgium outshot the Americans 38-14, with 26 shots on goal to the USMNT’s nine. The Red Devils may not have dominated possession, but they certainly looked more dangerous when they had it, and were it not for Howard the match easily could have ended 5-0. Belgium fielded England’s Young Player of the Year (Eden Hazard), the world’s fastest-rising goalkeeping star (Courtois), and the captain of the defending Premier League champions (Vincent Kompany). They were (and are) an ascendant European power with a golden generation coming into its own. When it came time for a late goal, they brought on Lukaku, the striker whom Everton would soon buy for nearly $47 million. When the United States needed the same, it brought in Wondo, the pride of Chico State. Is it really his fault that the talent gap between the two teams could stretch from the stadium in Salvador all the way back to his home in California?

And yet, well, you saw it. The chance was there for the taking. Decades later, no one would remember that the victory had been undeserved. They would only remember Wondo finding the right spot at the rightest of times, beating a world-class keeper with a goal that, beautiful or not, was still a goddamn goal.

That was how Klinsmann seemed to see it. Upon his return to the States, he practically fomented Americans’ rage. Of the culture he wanted to see, Klinsmann said, “It’s also more demanding, more demanding on the players. Not just letting them get away with things, getting critical in certain moments, and make it clear that if you would have put that ball in the net yesterday, we would be in the next round.” He continued: “If you have a bad performance, people should tell you that so you can make sure the next game is not as bad anymore and you step it up and be alert about that. This is the growth of the game in our country. People now are starting to care about it. Fans care about it. They comment on social media. They comment everywhere about it. And that’s good.”

Rough translation: guy who tweeted, “Even tho USA lost, I’m still blessed for the opportunity to take a pic with Micheal [sic] Bradley and Chris Wondolowski,” then attached a photo of himself in between two garbage cans? You’re good in Klinsy’s book. Everyone who offered Wondolowski words of support? You are hindering the growth of soccer in this country.

But the clamor for accountability when “accountability” really means vitriol might ignore that Wondolowski is, you know, a person, and a kindhearted and hardworking and much-beloved person at that. “People said such mean things to him,” remembers Wondolowski’s wife, Lindsey. “They think they’re being creative and funny, but it’s hard to stomach. It’s hard to see him take that on, knowing that he already puts so much pressure on himself.”

Had he scored against Belgium, Wondolowski would have added an improbable ending to an already amazing story. He grew up in San Francisco’s East Bay suburbs, a multisport athlete with a gift for middle-distance running but a passion for soccer. He spurned track offers from UCLA and other major programs to play the sport he loved at Division II Chico State. After playing in the National Premier Soccer League  the fourth division of American soccer  he impressed at an MLS tryout and was selected by the San Jose Earthquakes in the supplemental draft. He languished for several seasons on the bench and in the reserves, earning about $40,000 a year and supplementing his income with coaching gigs. “Every preseason was the same stress,” he says, “always thinking I might get cut, this might be it. And that never really went away. Even during the season, I never knew when a roster move might be made that left them with no need for me. And if I ever did get cut, I might never get another chance.”

Even when he couldn’t break into the lineup, Wondolowski still impressed teammates and coaches. “Chris has always been absolutely obsessed with scoring goals,” says Brad Davis, a fellow USMNT player who has also been Wondolowski’s teammate in San Jose and Houston. “You can teach someone how to make runs,” Davis added. “You can teach someone how to finish. You can teach them how to pass the ball. But one thing you can’t teach someone to do is to want to score goals more than anything on this earth. So much they’ll do whatever it takes. Chris has that.”

Wondolowski’s breakthrough came in 2010, back in San Jose, after injuries to starters bumped him into the lineup. He scored 18 goals, winning the league’s Golden Boot, then 16 goals the next year and a league-record 27 goals the year after that. Bob Bradley called him into the national team’s January camp in 2011, and he remained in the fold after Klinsmann replaced Bradley, scoring five goals as a leader of the U.S. “B” team that won the 2013 Gold Cup.

Along the way, Wondolowski earned the reputation of a poacher, someone who scored neither by muscling past defenders nor by taking them on with the dribble, but simply by ending up in the right place at the right time. “Some of his goals look like they’re lucky,” says Dominic Kinnear, who coached him in Houston and San Jose. “Every striker gets lucky sometimes. But a lot of times, he’s creating his own luck.” Wondolowski does it through perpetual motion, constantly darting in and around the box, circling defenders until they lose track of him for just a moment  a moment that, hopefully, results in him receiving the ball. He’s also continually making calculations, considering the tendencies of his teammates and opponents, adding them together to form an estimate, he says, “of the spot that has the highest probability that the ball will end up there.” Then, he adds, “I just go to that spot.” Four of his nine international goals have been punctuated by announcers using some version of the phrase “right place, right time.”

You could say that Wondolowski was put on a plane to Brazil for precisely that moment in the 92nd minute against Belgium. He’d been one of the more surprising inclusions on the U.S. roster, beating out Terrence Boyd and, yes, Landon Donovan for the fourth forward spot, behind Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Aron Johannsson. He’d seen the field in part because Altidore had suffered a hamstring injury in the World Cup opener against Ghana and Johannsson had been slowed by an ankle injury. Wondolowski might have lacked the speed or the skill to blow past the likes of Kompany, but surely, when the ball fell to him, as it had a way of doing, he would make good. He would put it away.

According to statistics cited from Opta Sports, Wondolowski’s shot carried with it 0.5 expected goals, an enormous number for only one shot, but still a 50-50 chance. So as much as he self-flagellates, and as much criticism as he took, and as much as Klinsmann suggested that the criticism was OK, perhaps the best outlook belongs to Kinnear, his MLS coach: “He missed. People miss. OK? It happens. It happened to him, and next time it will happen to someone else. That’s it.”

wondolowski-chris-belgium-world-cupAlex Livesey/FIFA/Getty Images

During the World Cup, they set up TVs at the Kiowa community center, and dozens of people filled the building, flags in hand and jerseys on. Wondolowski has reflected often on his role as a Native American wearing the jersey that represents a government that once slaughtered his own people. “I think that makes it even more important,” he said, “for people to see a representative of the country who’s native, who can be a face for our people on that kind of stage.”

Along with traditional tribal artwork and imagery, many Kiowa homes are filled with symbols of American patriotism. This patriotic sentiment can be traced to a history that predates the United States. “Kiowa have a deep identity as warriors,” says Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote, an American studies professor at the University of North Carolina and herself a Kiowa. Since they began assimilation into U.S. society, that warrior identity has been channeled largely through connection to and service in the U.S. military. “When you see those symbols that look patriotic,” explains Tone-Pah-Hote, “what you’re really seeing is a celebration of that warrior identity.”

When he was in college, Wondolowski received a tribal name: Bau Daigh. It means “Warrior Coming Over the Hill.” His cousin Linda remembers the moment he entered the game against Belgium. “You got chills,” she says. “The camera showed him, and he really did look like he was that warrior, the warrior coming over the hill.” Around the community center, the women joined together in a traditional honor holler: leh-leh-leh-leh-leh!!!!!!!

“It was bedlam,” says Dorothy. “Complete bedlam.” And when he missed? “You just heard, ‘Oh, no,’” she says. “Oh, dear. It was, ‘Come on! Go get ’em!’ Not once did you hear someone say, ‘Why did you do that?’ It was like everyone was programmed to support him.”

As night falls in Anadarko, Oklahoma, the gym at the community center is overtaken by a rhythmic and ancient noise, as the powwow in Wondolowski’s honor begins. A group of men sits gathered around a drum in the center of the room. THUMP-thunk. THUMP-thunk. THUMP-thunk. THUMP-thunk-thunk. Soon, they are chanting, and others are dancing, and the room is awash in ritual. Wondo stands near the center, wearing a Nike track jacket and jeans, flanked on both sides by teenagers in full regalia  beads and feathers in their hair, bodies blanketed by robes.

Later, in a follow-up interview, Wondolowski will say he has vowed the miss will make him better. “I make myself think about it,” he’ll say. “Anytime I’m working out, and I’m exhausted, if for some reason I want to quit, I’ll think back to it. If I keep going, if I keep working, maybe I’ll never have to feel that way again.”

But now, here in this gym surrounded by adoring family members and friends, he has no use for those feelings. Here there is no pressure to never repeat his past mistake. There are only the drums and songs, the children who run up to him and beg for an autograph, the old women who tell him they are just so very proud. And there is Wondolowski, stepping in line with the other dancers, a rattle in his hand. His face seems to struggle against the emotions that give it shape, and at one moment, he looks down, then back up as he wipes away a tear. Here in southwest Oklahoma, among his tribespeople, Wondolowski remains beloved, and his career’s greatest failure is notable only inasmuch as no one cares. 

This post has been updated to correct errors: USA’s World Cup match against Belgium was in the Round of 16, not the quarterfinals. Also, Houston did not trade for Wondolowski in 2006; Earthquake players and coaches relocated to the Dynamo after the 2005 MLS season.

Filed Under: What we saw, World Cup 2014, Soccer, US Soccer, MLS, USMNT, Jurgen Klinsmann, Belgium, Red Devils, Chris Wondolowski, USA vs Belgium, Thibaut Courtois, Jermaine Jones, Landon Donovan

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn