USA boss Jurgen Klinsmann may be lauded for his team's style, but arguably a more important achievement was expanding his player pool.For the first half of his international career, Chris Wondolowski found the net precisely zero times. The striker - so incredibly potent in Major League Soccer - found that record-setting form frustratingly elusive when bearing the red, white and blue on his shoulders.
Fans began to grow restless. Was a career MLS-er rapidly approaching 30 really deserving of the roster spot and playing time being invested in him? Was he a one-dimensional hack getting exposed when the team wasn't tailored to his strengths? Public support for Wondolowski began to plummet outside Northern California.
And then came a friendly against Guatemala, and Wondo broke his duck. After that, a misspelled name on the back of his jersey and a hat trick against Belize, then a brace against Cuba, and the San Jose Earthquakes star found himself exiting the CONCACAF Gold Cup with a winner's medal and share of the Golden Boot.
Against South Korea on Saturday, he was the man of the match, scoring two excellent poacher's goals with first-time efforts -- one headed, one from his right foot -- deep in the box. After 18 games for the United States, Wondolowski has a respectable total of eight goals.
"I think Wondo is a wonderful example of, if you are committed, if you are hungry, if you give everything you have over a long period of time, sooner or later you get rewarded for it," Klinsmann said in a news conference after the match. "For two and a half years we’ve been working together and in every training session and every day he came in, he gave everything he has and that’s really nice to see that a player like him is just waiting for his chance but also hungry for his chance.
"He’s a pure finisher and he smells where the ball in the box and he’s just right there and puts it in. He follows his first thought and gets it done, and that’s a reward for his commitment, for his attitude, for his character. It’s cool."
While he's still not a lock, or even particularly likely to make Jurgen Klinsmann's World Cup squad, what he does represent is an option. He's not plan A or B, and maybe not even plan C, but if Jurgen Klinsmann wants a veteran poacher with some experience playing and scoring for the United States, he has a player in Wondolowski who can fill that role.
Wondolowski is not an isolated case. In his two and a half years in charge of the U.S. men's program, Klinsmann has revealed himself as a coach willing to give players a shot, a coach willing to trust them and stand by them until they find their feet. It's an approach that has yielded the deepest pool of national team players in U.S. history.
In almost every position, the USA has a wealth of options. Even at the long-time problem spot, left back, there are four experienced hands ready to go in DaMarcus Beasley, Fabian Johnson, Edgar Castillo and Michael Parkhurst. It's a long way from the last World Cup, when the options seemed to be Jonathan Bornstein or playing the USA's best central defender, Carlos Bocanegra, out of position.
At the 2010 tournament, the United States had just one striker -- 20-year-old Jozy Altidore -- whose caps measured in the double digits. When a tragic traffic collision ruled out his strike partner, Charlie Davies, coach Bob Bradley turned to the closest thing he could find to Davies, Real Salt Lake striker Robbie Findley. Findley started three of the USA's four games, scoring zero goals. No American playing as a striker scored a goal.
With the 2014 edition of the World Cup rapidly approaching, the United States is almost spoiled for choice. Despite his well-publicized struggles at club level, Jozy Altidore is coming off his best-ever year for the national team. Aron Johannsson pledged his future to the stars and stripes, made his debut, grabbed his first goal, and is lighting up the Eredivisie. Eddie Johnson has resurrected his career and planted himself firmly in the conversation as both a striker and a forward coming inside from the flank, a testament to Klinsmann's eagerness to leave no stone unturned whether personnel-wise or tactically, and his willingness recall experienced players whose stars had temporarily faded (traits that have also benefitted players like Beasley, Parkhurst and Benny Feilhaber). Terrence Boyd, Herculez Gomez and of course, Wondolowski have all seen significant time under Klinsmann. That's not even mentioning the USA's two offensive superstars, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, both of whom can play wide, behind the striker, or up top.
And those are just the forwards. In the past cycle, Klinsmann has made a legitimate star out of Graham Zusi, rejuvenated Beasley's international career with a move to left back, forged a younger, more dynamic new central back pairing out of Omar Gonzalez and the previously unheralded Matt Besler, developed Mix Diskerud as a spark off the bench and the team's playmaker of the future and found legitimate World Cup roster options in players like Brad Evans, John Brooks, Michael Orozco, Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Joe Corona and Danny Williams. The goalkeeping corps of Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando is as strong as any ever put forth by the USA, and all have had the chance to shine in competitive matches.
While only 11 players can take the field for the U.S. in this summer's World Cup, they'll be drawn from a deeper, more competitive group than ever before, benefit from better competition, more experience, and a coach who knows how to build a team.