By Matt Velazquez
Chris Wondolowski could have been an exceptional track athlete at the collegiate level and beyond. But that’s not where his passion lay.
During his senior year of high school in 2000-01, colleges at every level, including UCLA, were interested in his middle-distance running talents. But track and field wasn’t what Wondolowski wanted to pursue. He didn’t just want to run ahead of everyone else. He wanted to use his speed to get into open space and score goals. His dream was to play soccer, and it led him to Cal State Chico, a Division II university about 170 miles north of his hometown of Danville, Calif.
“Soccer was definitely my first love,” Wondolowski said. “There were a couple of Division III schools that wanted me for both soccer and track, but I really wanted to concentrate on soccer.”
While at Cal State Chico, Wondolowski blossomed into a star. He put himself among the school’s all-time leaders with 39 goals and 23 assists in 84 games and he helped the Wildcats reach the NCAA Division II championship match in 2003. Cal State Chico finished 21-5 that season, posting five more wins than in any other year before or since.
Two years later, the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer took a chance on Wondolowski by picking him in the league’s supplemental draft. The risk was well worth it: He has emerged as one of the league’s top players, earning the Golden Boot two out of the past three years and MLS Most Valuable Player honors in 2012.
For all of his accomplishments, Wondolowski was named as one of two California Collegiate Athletic Association members on the Division II 40th Anniversary Tribute Team.
The journey from little-known prep athlete to major-league star began when then-Wildcats coach Mike O’Malley noticed Wondolowski at a tournament late in his high school career. O’Malley invited him to check out the school, and extended Wondolowski his only scholarship offer for soccer. Wondolowski immediately fell in love. He decided Cal State Chico was where he wanted to be.
When he arrived, he found what he called a “family environment” and a “brotherhood” that spanned the soccer program and campus community. He also found the level of play in Division II was not what he had anticipated.
“(The level of competition) was definitely higher than I expected,” said Wondolowski, who scored 22 goals and had 13 assists in his first two seasons. “In the conference that we were in, the CCAA, it is a very high level, especially for soccer. There were no easy games; every game was a battle from top to bottom.”
Wondolowski credits that high level of play with helping him to recognize the kind of work required for him to stand out on his way to becoming a second-team All-American in 2003, when he helped anchor a Cal State Chico offense that set a single-season school record with 63 goals. By the time his career ended in 2004, the kid that received one soccer scholarship offer in high school had finished his college career second on Cal State Chico’s career points list (101), third in goals scored (23) and fifth in assists (23). No Cal State Chico player has matched those accomplishments since.
The work ethic that produced those successes has since become his calling card and helped him succeed in the MLS and earn nine caps for the United States Men’s National Team.
Wondolowski never stopped pushing himself, even though it took him five years to make his mark on the MLS when he broke out in 2010 with 18 goals over 28 games to earn his first Golden Boot award.
This past season, Wondolowski’s MLS-leading 27 goals ̶ nine more than the second-highest goal scorer ̶ helped the Earthquakes jump from their status as a perennial bottom-dweller in the Western Conference to the top of the regular-season standings for the first time. It earned Wondolowski MVP honors, placing him on an elite list of major pro-sports award winners from Division II schools among names like Walter Payton (the NFL’s 1977 MVP from Jackson State) and Pete Vuckovich (1982 Cy Young winner from Clarion).
Much of that grit and determination stemmed from the lessons he learned playing at Cal State Chico.
“(Being in Division II) taught me how to compete,” Wondolowski said. “I think that every game and every situation was a battle, and I think that it really helped me blossom into a player and really gain in my confidence as well. … I think that’s what got me into the league and took me around through the years. I was able to bide my time until I found an opportunity, and I’m just trying to make the most of my opportunity.”
Pushing himself harder to improve his skills in college also meant getting better at managing his time so he could properly balance his responsibilities on the field and in the classroom. Inspired by a Cal State Chico fan with autism, Wondolowski pursued a degree in special education.
“You have to remember that you’re a student-athlete and you have to make sure your grades are up and also make sure that you’re prepared for your games and your team,” Wondolowski said.
Wondolowski never regretted his decision to turn down offers to play sports for other schools. He recognized his dream early and followed it from Cal State Chico to soccer’s highest levels. His advice to young people who are making college decisions is to follow their passion, like he did.
“Don’t just go for the name of the school,” he said. “Go for what fits you best.”