Chris Wondolowski walked the Candlestick Park field in warm-ups and sneakers, breathing in the cyclone of air, and taking in the sights of the aging orange seats that surrounded him. His playlist: Jay-Z internet radio -- an appropriate choice for a player that thrives on confidence.
"I always walk the field and just envision myself out there," Wondolowski says. "I just mentally go through certain chances, certain situations."
At the time, Wondolowski was preparing himself for a substitute's role, one that would see him come off the bench in the second half to make an impact as legs tired on both squads. But within an hour of his pregame walk on the turf, Wondolowski was thrust into the spotlight. U.S. captain Clint Dempsey was a late scratch from the lineup, having been held out as a precautionary measure due to groin soreness. Wondolowski would replace him.
"It was a bit different," Wondolowski continues. “I was able to get the nod there, and I've got to be able to step up."
Adding to the motivation – this was, for all intents and purposes, a home game for Wondolowski. The striker grew up in the Bay Area, and several members of his family were in the stands. That’s to say nothing of the support from San Jose Earthquakes fans who provided him with the loudest cheers of nearly anybody on the team at his introduction during the team’s open training the day before. Though they assumed it would come in the second half, all were waiting to see if the man they call “Wondo” could make an impact.
Instead, he very nearly made his mark within four minutes of kickoff. Left open at the far post in the six-yard box, Wondolowski dove through the air to get his head on a Graham Zusi free kick. His header was on target, but Azerbaijan goalkeeper Kamran Aghayev was able to block the effort with his left knee.
"With a little bit of luck he scores that header right away," U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann said after the game. "That was not an easy header to take because the wind just takes it in all sorts of directions. It's not that you can really place the ball where you want to, you're just happy to actually hit it."
Wondolowski's second chance, by contrast, was placed perfectly. Rising to meet an Alejandro Bedoya cross, the San Jose Earthquakes striker's header put Aghayev in a tough spot, forcing the goalkeeper to sprawl across the face of the goal to palm the ball up and over the bar for what was an outstanding save.
With the fight for places on the field heating up as the U.S. continues its Send-Off Series in New York this weekend against Turkey (2 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and Univision), the misses loom large over what was otherwise a decent performance. Wondolowski held up play effectively when needed, made dangerous runs and worked hard to pressure the Azerbaijan back line throughout his time on the field.
But when reviewing his performance, Wondolowski knows that goals are what matter most for a player in his position.
"I have to be able to get better and take my chances," Wondolowski concluded. "Whether I'm starting or coming off the bench, you have to take advantage of it."