San Jose Earthquakes legend Chris Wondolowski has been guiding Cade Cowell, 17, for years; now th...

ByJeff Carlisle ESPN logo
Friday, May 21, 2021

The first time Chris Wondolowski met Cade Cowell, the San Jose Earthquakes legend wasn't in a good place.

It was 2018, and the Quakes were in the midst of a wretched season in which they would finish dead last in MLS. Wondolowski wasn't in the starting lineup either. So when he was put with the reserves in a team scrimmage, including a smattering of academy kids he assumed were heading to college, he wasn't surprised. He soon noticed Cowell "absolutely destroying" Joel Qwiberg, one of the team's left backs, but the player's crosses were way off, consistently missing Wondolowski in the box.

"I remember yelling at him," Wondolowski told ESPN, although perhaps mindful of his legendary intensity, he quickly noted, "But not too bad." And yet, he was impressed enough with what he saw that he went up to technical director Chris Leitch afterward to give his critique, completely unaware of who Cowell was.

"I was like, 'That kid's not bad. But when he gets to college, he's got to make sure he finishes that final pass. He's pretty good. Who is that kid?' Chris was like, 'Yeah, he's in eighth grade.' I was like 'He's got a little bit of time. He's doing OK.'

"I vividly remember Cade at that practice. I'd never heard of him, never knew about him. But driving home, I smiled to myself. I was like, 'Yep, he's something.'"

The master and the apprentice

As if there were any doubts about where Cowell and Wondolowski are in their respective careers, one need only look at their hair. Both are multihued, but for different reasons. Cowell is sporting a blond dye job, because that's the kind of thing you do when you're 17 years old. For Wondolowski, there are splotches of gray in his beard. All the more reason for Wondolowski to make it his mission to take the young forward under his wing.

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Not only is Wondolowski in what he says is the final season of his career, but with Cowell already on two goals and three assists in six games this season, scouts are sniffing around, trying to bring the youngster over to Europe. That means there's only so much time to impart 17 seasons' worth of professional wisdom.

Wondolowski's mentoring of Cowell takes many forms. He's part cheerleader, part technician; he's a psychologist, and also just a teammate. Wondolowski is quick to point out that he and Cowell "aren't joined at the hip," but there are plenty of chances to talk shop, whether it's on the field, watching film or in the locker room. Games provide those opportunities as well.

"At halftime, during the game [Wondolowski] is yelling from the bench, or he's always saying things like, 'You can, like, blow by this guy," Cowell told ESPN. "He's always just [giving] that confidence. He's awesome with that."

There are more subtle, technical pointers, too. Wondolowski has been showing Cowell the advantages of the double run, where he fakes toward one post and drives back to the other. Wondolowski also noted that when Cowell made a run across the back line, he was running across both center backs. "Try to go [by] just one of the center backs and go in between them, and they'll have a lot harder time picking you up. Then no one's going to stay with you," he said.

Then there's the art of the one-touch finish, a Wondolowski staple. In a recent game against the Seattle Sounders, Cowell channeled his inner "Wondo," first-timing an Eric Remedi pass on goal, only to be denied by Stefan Frei's sparkling save. Although the end result was disappointing, Cowell saw progress.

"Without Wondo, I wouldn't even have got that shot on target, honestly," Cowell said. "I would have swung and missed that ball, for sure. He's taught me so much, just being in the box, creating space for myself in the box, moving. Obviously, I've so much to learn, but just little things like that -- which is huge -- it's thanks to him."

Cowell adds that the biggest aspect he has picked up from Wondolowski is mentality. No matter how mundane the drill, no matter who is on the field, Wondolowski absolutely hates to lose. There is no such thing as taking a play off, no lost cause worth giving up on.

"Wondo goes out there and will kill himself to get a touch on the ball and score for us," Cowell said. "That's the thing. Just as soon as he steps on the field, it just clicks and he just becomes like a lion. That's what I love about Wondo. He's super good about that stuff."

Cowell isn't the only one grateful for the advice. At just 17, he's facing all manner of distractions. He's a small-town kid as well, having grown up in Ceres, California -- population: 48,000 -- about 5 miles south of Modesto. It's his first time living away from home.

"For Wondo to be able to take that time and teach Cade things, not only about soccer but about life? I mean, I'm forever indebted to him for that," said Debin Cowell, Cade's father. "It made it so much more comfortable for us to have people like that in his life. With us not just being parents but being parents away from having a son in another city, it's hard for you to be a parent every single part of the day. For him to have positive influences like that in his life where he can go to and talk about problems, more than even soccer, I mean, it's very rare for somebody that could be like that."

Quakes manager Matias Almeyda is equally appreciative of Wondolowski's guidance of Cowell. Almeyda has spoken in the past of how difficult the pressures were for him as a player and the importance of bringing young players along with care.

"I think it's always important to have good mentors that can guide him along the right path with affection and experience," the manager told ESPN. "In this case, I think that Cade has the historic Wondo, and can see what he did and try to match or surpass what he's done."

Almeyda added, "[Cowell] knows everything about how I think of him, and he knows the big future that awaits him if he's smart."

Turning off the fire hose

Wondolowski is mindful of rationing the advice he gives Cowell. There are limits to how much information anyone can take in. The pressures of being a professional are immense; the struggle to manufacture confidence is never-ending; and expectations surrounding Cowell are already starting to reach stratospheric levels.

"It's like trying to drink out of a fire hose, especially with so much information coming at him," Wondolowski said. "So I think that at times, keep it simple, stupid. It works, and so that really is finding that balance where I do try to give him a lot of information but also, I just want him to enjoy it as well."

Cowell might be just 17, but he already has some career calluses. He is someone with an endless appetite for working out. At one time, his father had set up a weight training area in the backyard that was dubbed, "the prison yard" (it has now been moved back into the garage). Whenever he had a spare moment, he would hit the weights. But he nearly quit the game when he was 13, and it wasn't the physical toll but rather the mental side -- the endless grind of practices, games and travel -- that got to him. He never missed a practice, despite the 70-minute drive each way between Ceres and Pleasanton, where his youth club, Ballistic United, trained.

"It was so serious," Cowell said. "Like soccer every single day, every weekend. I had no free time. Like all my friends would go out and like, mess around just be like kids, and I could never do that."

Cowell had dabbled in other sports, too, be it baseball or flag football. Given that Debin was a football player at San Jose State University at one time, the lure of trying something different, and following in his father's footsteps, was strong. But Debin convinced Cade to give it one more year.

That year proved to be turning point for Cade. He'd been a right-back since he was eight after he marked a fast winger out of a game at a tournament. At the time, he didn't feel like he was missing out on the fun of the attack.

"To this day, I sometimes think defense is more fun to play, for me," Cowell said. "I like going into tackles, I like to slide-tackle all the time. There's just something that I enjoy a lot on defense."

But ahead of the 2017-18 season, Ballistic United U15 coach Andrew Ziemer, who is now the men's coach at College of Marin, needed a player to go up top. Given Cowell's physical attributes -- his speed in particular -- it made too much sense.

Cowell proved to be a quick study.

"Our first two games, two teams from L.A. came in," Ziemer said. "I think he had, like, four or five goals. He embraced it right away. But that's the kind of kid he is. He's humble and he wants to improve. So if he thinks it can make him a better player, he's gonna do it."

After scoring 33 goals in 32 league games, the Quakes soon came calling and Cowell's been rising through the ranks ever since, changing his tune on what sparks his passion for the game. "There's nothing better than scoring a goal," he said.

Yet that experience of nearly quitting left an impression on Cowell. He's found his own way to turn off the firehose. Days off will see him head back to Ceres to spend time with family, or go fishing at Lake McClure when he's in need of solitude.

"Just being out there in the water; no one's harassing me. No one's calling stuff. It's just really relaxing," he said. "Just getting away from everything."

The perfect forward?

Wondolowski shakes his head when asked what he was like at age 17. At that time, he was a full five years away from signing his first professional contract. It was another six seasons before he was a full-time starter in MLS. He had yet to even start his college career at Chico State. Everything about his game, from his body, to knowing what runs to make, to his touch, wasn't ready for the professional ranks.

"I would have pooped my pants," he said about the prospect of being a pro at 17. "I would have. I would have been so intimidated. It would not have been a good situation for me."

Yet Wondolowski has maximized his ability during his career, getting by on guile and smarts. So much so that there is a line of thinking that if you could fuse the attributes of both Wondolowski and Cowell into one individual, you'd have the perfect forward. To a degree, the idea does a disservice to both players.

Wondolowski is famous for never lifting a weight, but his athleticism is underrated. At age 38, he won the dreaded beep test during preseason, beating out Cowell in the process. And Cowell is proving to be more of a student of the game with each passing day. On the aforementioned play against the Sounders, he noted that if he had timed his run better and been on the move, instead of standing still, he would have generated more power on the shot, which might have been enough to beat Frei.

But where the two have considerable overlap is their competitiveness, work ethic and eagerness to soak up as much knowledge as possible. That is a critical foundation for everything else. And if Cowell keeps soaking in Wondolowski's knowledge, the possibilities are enticing to think about.

"There is no ceiling for him right now," Wondolowski said about Cowell. Cowell knows it, too.

"I'm in a stage right now where there's so many things that I need to get better at, and that's just going to take me so much higher," Cowell said. "Just keep going every single day. I feel like every time I like get better at something, there's one other thing. Just moves on to this, move on to that."

If Cowell keeps that up, in time the apprentice will eclipse the master.

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