Before we get to what Chris Wondolowski calls Landon Donovan, let me tell you about him a little bit.
Wondolowski looks like most average white guys in their late 20s. In fact, he reminds me of myself in some ways. Of course, he is better looking, and tanner, and about 20 pounds lighter and a million times more athletic—and an inch shorter, thank you—but more or less we look the same.
He arrives early for lunch at Rosie’s New York Pizza on The Alameda in San Jose, which bothers me because I’m late. He’s wearing cargo shorts, a white long-sleeved T-shirt and sunglasses wrapped around the back of his neck. He looks like a Sigma Chi alum. I apologize for my tardiness and ask him how long he’s been waiting.
“Oh, about 10 minutes,” he says.
“Did anyone recognize you?”
“No,” he says with a smile, “and I love that.”
We each get a slice of pepperoni. I buy. It’s not every day I get to treat a professional athlete to lunch, let alone someone who makes nearly 10 times my salary and is quite possibly having the best season of any professional athlete in the Bay Area this year. His sport happens to be soccer—also known as football, if you want to be a British prick about it. But even the Brits and most other European soccer aficionados would be hard-pressed to pick Wondolowski—”Wondo” to the San Jose Earthquakes faithful—out of a random collection of Major League Soccer (MLS) players from the States.
“That’s one of the many perks of being a soccer player,” he says. “Besides just a love of the game, but being able to go out and not having to worry about anything. There’s always a few fans or people I run into, but they’re always very cordial and very nice. And I always try to talk to them, because I grew up a fan. I was a fan of the Earthquakes and when they were the Clash. Back when Donovan was there, going to games at Spartan Stadium. I feel like I can relate to them.”
Donovan, of course, is Landon Donovan—the elfin L.A. Galaxy and U.S. National Team forward who started his MLS career in San Jose and is without a doubt the greatest American-born soccer player ever. In U.S. soccer circles, Donovan is also a lightning rod. It’s not even an argument—no American player has ever had more expectations from the time he was a teenager through adulthood. It can be argued that Donovan has vastly exceeded and conversely fallen short of those expectations, depending on how jingoistic one wants to be about our nation’s strides and shortfalls when it comes to soccer.
Wondowloski tells me he and Donovan became friends last summer, when Wondo was called up for the first time to play with the national team for the Gold Cup. It should be noted at this point that Wondolowski’s sudden emergence as the top scorer in Major League Soccer the last two seasons, which earned him back-to-back Golden Boot awards, has placed him under a spotlight not seen in San Jose since Donovan was leading the Earthquakes to MLS titles in 2001 and 2003.
And yet, while Wondolowski has scored eight game-winning goals this season and leads the league with 17 total—eight more than Donovan has this season, setting him on pace to shatter the MLS single-season record of 27—fame has yet to catch up to his accomplishments, something he shrugs and accepts for now as a blessing in disguise.
“I’ve always been a very shy and kinda laid back and quiet person,” says Wondolowski, a somewhat comical dichotomy to his on-field persona, where he morphs into a raging maniac. “I’ve always been very confident in my ability, but outside of soccer I’m very, very shy. I’m not very social, and my wife (Lindsey) is the complete opposite. That’s how I get any friends. She goes and meets them and I’m tagging along. I go out with the guys and I’m pretty quiet. Especially when I was single, I was horrible at meeting girls. I would never go up to them.”
The question now is how soon will more and more people start recognizing Wondolowski and coming up to him. It’s a topic he and Donovan have discussed.
“We’d go out to dinner and he would get recognized a lot,” Wondolowski says. “People would come up for pictures and autographs and I’m like, ‘I’m glad I’m not you right now.’ He’s like, ‘At times it sucks because you can’t even look up and make eye contact, because then you’re inviting them, because you know what they would want. So, you have to put your headphones on and look down, especially in airports.’ He’s like, ‘People have called me selfish, called me names, but they didn’t see me the last hour signing autographs, and now I got to get to my plane before I’m late. And then they think I’m a dick. Alright.’ It just comes with the territory.”
“Landon Donovan does seem like sort of a red ass, though,” I say.
“He can definitely come off—”
“You tell me though,” I add, “because maybe I’m wrong.”
“I get a different side of it, because he can definitely open up a bit more, a bit unguarded,” Wondolowski says.
“It’s like a fraternity,” I say.