GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Almost six years ago, a couple of American teenagers joined German side 1860 Munich. They were friends and teammates on the Irvine Strikers in Southern California.
One friend, Kovi Konowiecki, decided he didn’t want to stick it out. The other was Bobby Wood.
Wood was 14 when he left the United States for his adventure in Germany. He slowly worked his way up through the ranks at 1860 Munich, who are currently in the 2.Bundesliga. In January of this year, the 5-foot-10 attacker made his first-team debut.
His improvement over the past year drew the eye of US U-20 national team coach Thomas Rongen, who invited Wood to a camp 12 months ago. (He previously trained with the U-17 team on occasion but never became a fixture.) The 19-year-old impressed on the flanks and found himself starting for the US against Suriname and Panama in the first two matches of the CONCACAF Championship.
Wood tallied in the Americans’ opening 4-0 victory—he called it a "funny goal," laughing as he remembered the Conor Doyle flick-on that found his chest—but came out midway through the first half of the second game with an injury. It's the same issue in the back of his knee that has been bothering him since January; Wood says it flared up in Guatemala.
[inline_node:333092]Despite the concern, Rongen called Wood's removal against Panama a precaution. Wood skipped practice on Monday, but thinks he'll be ready for Wednesday's all-or-nothing quarterfinal against Guatemala (10 pm ET, concacaf.com).
The US attack needs Wood. He is developing a fluid chemistry with fellow starters Doyle and Joe Gyau.
"It's coming naturally," he said. "After every play we look up and see what's up. Who's on the center? Who's on the right? And we just kind of stay there."
However, the moving strategy is more about keeping defensive balance than anything. Rongen's 4-3-3 asks everyone to work on both ends of the field, especially if a forward loses the ball. It's not a rare occurrence to see Doyle, Gyau, Wood, Kelyn Rowe or one of the other forward players tracking back into the 18-yard box in pursuit of an opponent. When the team stays compact, they pressure the other squad up and down the field.
Wood says he's fine starting on the wing, but he'd stay higher up in the formation if he had his choice. In Germany, he plays point man in the squad's 4-5-1 and he feels most comfortable there.
"I like playing up top better than playing outside," he said. "I'm not the quickest guy. I'm kind of fast. And playing up top, I understand the position a little better."
It's tough to say Wood struggled in the American formation—he's starting, after all—but his relative discomfort comes from a lack of experience. In that regard, the matches against Suriname and Panama were essential to help him gain more fitness and form. The American side trains together frequently, but they rarely have a full team due to club duties. Wood missed numerous camps while fighting up the ladder at Munich. As a result, the US team develops most during games.
Just because they are playing all over the world, however, doesn't mean Wood and his teammates don't stay in contact. Wood communicates often with Gyau, his roommate in camp, and the pair bond over an affinity for reruns of Desperate Housewives.
After leaving Guatemala, Wood will return to the German apartment he moved into last year and resume training with 1860. He should see more first-team action in 2011 and already has one eye on 2012 when his contract ends.
"I would like to go to a first-division team, but my development is important," he said. "[Munich] have a good youth system and they like to bring the young players up. I could play a lot."
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.