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Chris Wondolowski, a ‘surreal’ life, and the pivotal World Cup miss that still haunts him

Chris Wondolowski knows that the flashbacks are coming. They barge to the front of his brain whenever he hears the word “Belgium,” or whenever a pitiless fan reminds him of his shame. They recede as he shuttles two young daughters around his hometown, or beams at their school’s Halloween costume parade; but there are “certain triggers,” Wondo says, that “send your mind off spinning.” And he knows that, as the U.S. men’s national team returns to the World Cup for the first time since his miss, the triggers will multiply.

They’ve trailed him ever since July 1, 2014, when he shanked a chance now burned into YouTube and millions of brains. In stoppage time of a taut Round of 16 tie, he blazed the crowning moment of an improbable career beyond a Belgian crossbar, and America howled in disbelief, then in rage. An hour later, sitting in a despondent locker room, Wondolowski glued his eyes to Twitter and ingested bottomless venom. Before he could even speak to his family, he faced a gaggle of reporters and, when asked about the chance, admitted that he’d “be thinking about it” indefinitely.

Eight years later, he still is. He’s 39 and recently retired, as Major League Soccer’s goalscoring king. He lives a busy but happy life in leafy Northern California, coaching and dadding surrounded by people he loves. But memories of 2014 rest delicately just beneath the surface of his mind. Some of them are fond; but the miss, Wondolowski told Yahoo Sports this summer, “definitely overshadows all the good, or any of the good.” So much so that he shies away from some World Cup-related conversations, “’cause I don't want someone to bring it up — I don't want to go down that road,” he says.

But of course, reminders are inescapable. His mentions are still occasionally polluted by “absolute clowns,” who promise to always hate him and never forgive him. “And it's not even just the social media,” Wondolowski says. “It's everywhere.” A replay blindsided him when he sat down to watch the 2014 World Cup final. He knows more will ambush him when he tunes in for Qatar 2022 in November.

When the memory does resurface, he tries to “compartmentalize it, and roll it up into a tiny ball, and try shoving it down,” he says — “until it comes back later.”

He believes he has learned and grown from the entire experience. “But by no means have I come to grips with it,” he says frankly. Various people have suggested he share his learnings with other athletes who, like him, have had their failures broadcast to the world; but Wondo doesn’t quite feel that’s his place.

Because he still has his “own problems, and turmoil,” he says. “I don't feel comfortable enough in my skin.”

In fact, he’s not sure he ever will. And he’s come to accept that. He’s nonetheless proud of the story he’s written, a “surreal” underdog tale unparalleled in American soccer. The miss, he knows, “is gonna be a part of me and this story.”

Chris Wondolowski still rues his miss in the waning seconds of Team USA's loss to Belgium at the 2014 World Cup. (Getty)
Chris Wondolowski still rues his miss in the waning seconds of Team USA's loss to Belgium at the 2014 World Cup. (Getty)

Wondo lives the dream, then a nightmare

The story begins in 1980s Danville, California, before the U.S. had even qualified for a modern World Cup, in a country where college soccer was the realistic pinnacle — a pinnacle that, for a while, Chris Wondolowski seemed like he wouldn’t reach.

He played countless sports as a child, in his backyard with two younger brothers, and on teams coached by his father, John. But his best, objectively, was track and field. UCLA and Cal wanted him as a middle-distance runner. No Division I school wanted him as a striker.

Wondo, however, wanted soccer. He enrolled at Division II Chico State. He starred, but even his most unconditional supporters assumed that this would be the end of the road. At the end of a five-goal senior season, he posed for a picture with his mom, Janis, who got emotional as she realized that her eldest son might have just played his last competitive soccer game.

He ventured to a local MLS combine; due to a miscommunication, he missed the call back for Day 2. But he showed up anyway. The San Jose Earthquakes saw enough to select him in, essentially, the eighth round of the 2005 MLS draft. He signed a contract worth less than $12,000 a year, and wrangled together a few roommates, and “make no mistake about it,” his father later wrote, “this” — a spot at the unseen end of an MLS roster — “was success.”

Wondolowski toiled in reserve teams as the Earthquakes relocated to Houston and became the Dynamo. He scored just two MLS goals in his first four seasons as a professional. He sought out part-time coaching gigs on the side to keep himself afloat. In 2009, at age 26, when he married his college sweetheart, Lindsey, he was still not starting, and still made less money than she did as a teacher. It was around that time that John Wondolowski called Lindsey and vowed to “talk to Chris about getting a real job.”

But whenever he would, father would ask son one paramount question: “Are you still having fun?”

Chris’ answers were swift and unwavering: “Yes.”

Chris Wondolowski, who played forward for the U.S. national soccer team in the 2014 World Cup, poses for a portrait after practicing with the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday, July 4, 2014, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Chris Wondolowski, who played forward for the U.S. national soccer team in the 2014 World Cup, poses for a portrait after practicing with the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday, July 4, 2014, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

A trade back to San Jose finally unlocked opportunity. Wondolowski leapt at it and, in his first year as a regular, won the 2010 MLS Golden Boot. Two years later, he tied the league’s single-season record for goals with 27. He broke into the national team, and broke out for the USMNT at the 2013 Gold Cup, and just kept adding to an unbelievable life script. “It felt like I was living an out-of-body experience,” he says. “Living the dream.”

It seemed to culminate in May of 2014, with phone calls that made Lindsey scream and John sob. Chris had made the World Cup squad. He’d go to Brazil as a late-game poacher who, perhaps, could come off the bench and latch onto a chance and slay a giant. Or perhaps he wouldn’t, and the experience would be a highlight of his career all the same.

But then the chance came, and soared away into the Brazilian night, and this feel-good story somehow produced a villain. The U.S. lost 2-1 in extra time. Wondolowski stood on the field, his body paralyzed as his soul tried to escape. He later checked Twitter because he genuinely worried that he and his family would be the subject of threats. He told the world he was “gutted to have let down everyone.”

Nowadays, he admits, he succumbs to the occasional daydream about the alternate ending; about how the past eight years of his life, and decades to come, might be different if that whizzing ball had rippled the roof of that gaping net.

“But I stop it 10 seconds in,” he says of his drifting mind, because, well, “Why? Why? It didn't.”

Why Wondo won’t just forget

It instead became fuel. Beginning that winter, when workouts droned on and on, and the season seemed distant, there were days when the memory of his 2014 despair would push him through a monotonous drill or a grueling set, because he never wanted to feel it again.

“I firmly believe I wouldn't have had the success later in my career without this happening,” Wondolowski says now, and he needn’t present evidence. He responded the following season with 16 goals. He strung together 10 straight seasons in double digits — five each side of the World Cup. In 2019, he banged in 15 as a 36-year-old.

He retired, finally, in 2021, not with a news conference or a choreographed announcement but rather with an unscripted on-field speech. He spoke directly to the fans who adore him, and to the kids for whom he’d often sign autographs hours after games. He spoke to youth and high school teammates, and to a contingent from Chico State. He spoke to his parents, daughters and wife.

It’s that “inner circle,” Wondolowski says, who helped carry him through the darkest days in 2014. Their opinions are the ones he cares about, and the ones he turned toward “for validation.” Their love always overshadowed online hate.

The hate, though, was never the primary source of his lasting pain. The source was internal. It was his “highest standards” left unmet, and ambition left forever unfulfilled. That’s why Wondo remembers.

It’s why his mind, which has stored details of “just about every goal” he ever scored, still returns to his junior year of high school, and to a championship game at Diablo Valley College against Deer Valley, and to a second-half cross served up by teammate Matt McCall. “All I had to do was just head it down,” Wondolowski says. “And I tried to put too much power on it, and hit it off the post, and it stayed out. And we lost, 1-0.”

It’s why his mind returns to Salvador, Brazil, too. The hate has died down. The flashbacks haven’t. And as the World Cup rolls around once again, he is bracing himself.

But he isn’t worried that Fox might show replays. He won’t be bothered if they do. He understands the permanence of that 2014 moment and the emotions it summoned across America, because he, too, was once the kid feeling them. He was the fan clinging to the pendulum swings of World Cup games. He was the guy swearing at his TV in agony.

On Nov. 21, at 2 p.m. ET, he’ll resettle into that role. He’ll turn to Fox for USA-Wales, “and I'll be screamin’, screamin’ loud,” he says.

“I'm excited that the U.S. finally has a new [men’s] World Cup,” he says. He’s excited that the USMNT will “be able to, kind of — not move on, but be able to write new history.”