Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Or maybe, “What’s your major?” Sometimes, it can be tough be explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? We asked MLS All-Star Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes to explain his job without any cliches. This is What You Don’t Know About: Being a Striker.
Well, in two sentences: I’m a striker. My job is to score goals.
Easy, right? If I ever forget, fans scream my job description at me all the time. “Just put it in the net, man!” But in reality, it’s a little trickier than that. About 75 percent of my job happens before I have the ball at my feet. Before I can kick the ball and score, I need to create a half-second of space for myself. Doing that takes a little bit of mental chess. And just like real chess, the payoff can take a very, very long time.
A major part of my job is to lie (sorry, Mom). I have to use deception to manipulate two, sometimes three, defenders guarding me. It’s a 90-minute game of chess. If I know we don’t have the ball in a threatening spot, I’ll often sacrifice my positioning for a little while so I can soften up the defenders for later. I want to build up their confidence and make them think they’re all over me. For example, I always know the exact spot I want to end up when a play is building in the middle of the field. And if I see that my teammate is running down the wing with the ball, I know he’s maybe eight seconds away from crossing the ball into the box. I can’t simply run to my spot right away. I need to use about 7.5 seconds before the potential pass comes to confuse the defenders. I need to make them believe that I’m going anywhere else but that spot.
Maybe I’ll make them think I’m too gassed and being lazy by hanging at the far post. Maybe I’ll even breathe a little heavier or hunch over a bit. If I’m lucky, the defenders will mentally shut off for a second. I want them thinking, I got this. Then I’ll sprint to my spot at the near post the moment I sense my teammate is about to make the cross.
One thing I learned later in my career is you can take advantage of miscommunication between defenders. If the two central defenders don’t have a good partnership, I can move back-and-forth between the two of them, getting into their blind spots. If I’m facing a young guy, I might realize he’s not doing a good job of communicating where I am to his partner. Maybe he’s too shy, or just loses concentration. So I’ll stick right on his hip for those 7.5 seconds as the play builds, then at the last second I’ll run off him into his partner’s blind spot. If he doesn’t warn his partner, I have that fraction of a second I need to get to my spot.
So how do you know what that perfect spot is? Well, that’s the million dollar question.
First, I need to know where my teammate is going to put the ball, how fast it’s going to arrive and at what trajectory. (Plus, the spin.) A lot of this is pure timing and knowing your teammates well, which is gained by hours of practice together. As he’s running down the wing, you might notice he looks tired and is leaning back as he’s about to pass the ball, which sends a signal to your brain that the trajectory will be a bit flatter. It’s an intuition you develop. But you also need very good depth perception to read where that ball is going the moment it leaves your teammate’s foot. The longer you do this job, the easier it becomes to instantly calculate where the ball will land.
Once you beat the defender and get to your spot, it’s only you, the ball and the goalkeeper. What now?
Well, that’s where my job gets interesting.
Long before the game starts, whether I’m at home at Avaya Stadium or on the road, I’m already on the field starting my work. But I’m not warming up or kicking a ball around; I’m imagining how the whole game will play out in my head. I walk the entire field listening to music, from one goal area to the other. I’m visualizing where the other 21 men could be, how the ball might come to me, and how I can get it past the defenders and the goalie. I might also picture the ball arcing through the air from a corner kick, then me jumping up, making contact with my head and the ball going into the top corner, splashing against the netting before settling in the grass. (It’s the little details that make it real.) No matter what, in my head, I’m envisioning myself scoring. Every time, the ball lands perfectly in the back of the net.
You’d be surprised how many times a goal plays out in real life the exact way you imagined it.
Why do I put myself through this make-believe session? Because being a striker is all about confidence and conviction. When I was just starting out in my job, I didn’t understand this. In high school and college, I would think, Just don’t mess up out there. Don’t embarrass yourself. I eventually learned there is no room for this type of thinking. You have to care very much about the game, but simultaneously have enough confidence in yourself to not care about screwing up. It takes years to really understand this concept.
I always think about how during a speech, Jack Nicklaus once said he’d never three-putted in the final round of a tournament. Someone in the audience raised his hand and said, “I have to disagree. I’ve seen you three-putt.” Nicklaus replied, “You’re mistaken. I’ve never three-putted.”
Of course, Nicklaus had three-putted many times before.
But that was his whole point. Whether you score or you miss, you have to forget about it immediately. You’re on to the next one. That’s how you have to think. A striker is under an unbelievable amount of scrutiny. You could be playing at your peak, keeping the ball uncontested with perfect touches every time, but if you don’t score, you’ve had a bad game. Or you could lose the ball just about every time you touch it, but if you get on the end of one cross, suddenly you’re the Man of the Match. In some games, I might not even touch the ball for 89 minutes. Then in the last minute, the ball might come to my feet. You always have to believe the ball is going in, no matter what — even if you missed your last 10 shots.
This job is so cool because it’s about imagination, then destruction. I’ve scored more than 100 goals in Major League Soccer. Each was imagined before the game, then immediately forgotten once the ball hits the net. Same with every miss. I destroy them from my memory. The only thing that exists is the moment I’m in.
And that’s what a striker does.