Orlando City had a difficult experience this weekend in San Jose, with a 3-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes. San Jose striker and captain Chris Wondolowski netted a brace in the game. In the defeat, the Lions saw something that they will hopefully find one day — a truly local sports hero to lead the club.
Wondolowski was born and raised in the local Bay Area. After graduating from De La Salle High School in Concord, CA, he enrolled at Chico State. During his senior year, the striker played for the Chico Rooks of the National Premier Soccer League.
Wondolowski was chosen with the 41st pick of the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft by his local club, the San Jose Earthquakes. It kept him in the area in which he had spent his whole life until that point. Unfortunately for the Bay Area product, Phil Anschutz, who owned several teams at the time, moved the Quakes to Houston as he was unable to acquire a new stadium for the team. Wondolowski left for Houston with the team, spending three-and-a-half years in the Lone Star State.
In 2009, a year after the Earthquakes came back into the league, Wondolowski returned to his native area and has been there ever since. In total, Wondolowski has made 317 MLS regular season appearances and six playoff appearances for the Earthquakes.
When the Quakes drafted Wondolowski, it was much more difficult to acquire a quality local player as the only way to obtain young players was through the draft. That has been made much easier with the introduction of the Homegrown Player Rule. This ensures that teams own the rights of certain players, most notably those who come out of the club’s academy.
One of the biggest benefits of having a locally-produced player is that there is a greater chance that player will want to stay with the club. As Orlando City fans have seen over the past five years, those playing in weak teams often wish to move on to greener pastures. But if that player grew up rooting for the club, there’s a greater chance he’ll desire to stay.
It also gives the fans somebody to identify with. The idea of supporting your local club has become less important over the past few decades around the world because few members of the club are local. Whether it’s players, coaches, or owners, many are from far away areas. A local player gives fans somebody on the field who they can identify with as one of their own.
Finding that player is not as easy as it might seem. Players want to test themselves at the highest level. Tyler Adams came up through the New York Red Bulls academy and became a key member of the first team. Today, he plays in Germany’s Bundesliga for RB Leipzig.
FC Dallas wasn’t so lucky with a player it was developing. Weston McKennie was in Dallas’ heralded academy but left for FC Schalke in Germany. Despite this, both of those clubs have several Homegrown Players in their first teams.
What separates Wondolowski is what he’s done in MLS. This year, he passed Landon Donovan as the league’s all-time top scorer. He also represented the U.S. National Team between 2011 and 2016, playing in the Concacaf Gold Cup and FIFA World Cup. It’s difficult to keep a player with that type of experience in MLS throughout his career.
Orlando City does have a player who could potentially fulfill that role though. Benji Michel grew up in the Orlando area watching Orlando City play. He came through the Orlando City academy before attending the University of Portland, but returned as a Homegrown signing.
It’s difficult to predict which players will provide the club with that local star MLS teams have had over the years. But it’s something that Orlando City would love to have.