MIAMI—Last summer, before the start of the 2.Bundesliga season, Bobby Wood and Jurgen Klinsmann had a bit of a heart-to-heart.
Wood had just signed with Union Berlin. He’d spent the last few months of the previous season at Erzgebirge Aue, where he was sent on loan last February after falling out at his longtime club 1860 Munich.
The Hawaii-native was coming off of a solid run of form with the US national team, but he hadn’t ever found his way on the club level. He never had a sustained run of games with Munich, and his limited success in Aue – he scored three goals in nine games as the club was relegated to the third-division – came in a small sample. Wood was still very unproven in Germany and, though he didn’t turn 23 until last November, was running out of chances.
“Before the season started I said, ‘You’ve got to make it this year, otherwise they’re going to move you on,’” Klinsmann told reporters Tuesday, at the USMNT’s Copa America Centenario camp in Miami. “That’s how it works in Europe, they’re not that patient. At the age of 21, 22, you’re an old player.”
Wood took Klinsmann’s words to heart. After spending his entire career fighting for time off the bench, he immediately established himself as Union’s starting striker last season. More importantly, he never let go of the job, leading the team with 17 goals in 31 league appearances to help sixth-place Union match their best finish in 25 years.
Wood’s record-setting campaign – his 17 goals were the most-ever by an American in Germany – drew the attention of some of the bigger clubs in Europe. He was reportedly scouted by English giants Liverpool and German third-place finishers Bayer Leverkusen, but ended up signing with Hamburg, sealing his move from Berlin to the storied Bundesliga side on Sunday.
“There were some other clubs interested, but my gut feeling just said that Hamburg was the best opportunity for me to develop,” Wood told reporters on Thursday.
“I had a good talk with the coach and the people who were at the head of the club. I just had good talks with them, I felt comfortable with them and my gut feeling just made that decision.”
His club future settled, Wood will have a chance to continue his big summer when the US kicks off Copa America against Colombia in a couple of weeks. He was expected to play a major role at the tournament even before Jozy Altidore went down with an injury; now, with the US’s regular striker out for the competition, Wood will have a chance to shoulder an even larger role.
Altidore’s injury will likely give Wood, who has typically lined up on the wing for the USMNT, an opportunity to play as a striker. A move to his preferred central position, where he played with Union, would give Wood more of a platform to build on his already-impressive international resume, which features consecutive game winners in upsets at the Netherlands and Germany last summer, the goal that briefly pulled the US level in extra time of their CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico last fall and the first strike in the US’s 6-1 romp over St. Vincent and the Grenadines in World Cup qualifying in November.
(Photo Credit: Action Images)
“I’m a striker. I think it’s important to try to be flexible, but my main position is at striker,” he said. “I try to learn to play on the outside a little bit, but it’s a little bit of a learning process for me. Still, it’s something that if I get to play, I’ll be more than happy.”
From the outside, Wood’s rise to a potential Copa America starter has been swift. A little over a year ago, he was a relative unknown, toiling for a club that was in the process of getting relegated to Germany’s third tier. He was questioned every time he was called to the USMNT, with many using his repeated inclusion on US rosters as a pretext for bashing Klinsmann.
He had plenty of down moments, and he had to get through all of them on the opposite side of the world from his Hawaii home. Still, he persevered, surviving his bumpy tenure at Munich and uncertain future with Aue to thrive with Union Berlin.
Wood could’ve easily become a cautionary tale, another young American who failed to make a mark in Europe. Instead, he’s become a model for some of the USMNT’s younger players, someone Klinsmann can point to as an example of how to truly seize an opportunity.
“It’s been up and down, up and down. And you’re patient, you help and you talk, you talk to his club and you hope that sooner or later he’s coming out of the shell and he starts scoring, he starts to become more confident, he starts to take people on,” Klinsmann said. “A lot has to do with becoming a man, a young man. You come from the youth section, 18, 19, 20, and you become an adult. And suddenly you’re in an adult world and you have to bring out your elbows, and I think Bobby learned to bring out his elbows a bit.”
Now he’s under contract with one of Germany’s most decorated clubs. He’ll likely have a shot to shine in the biggest soccer tournament – his first with the USMNT – to come to the US since the 1994 World Cup.
It’s all a long way from where he was 18 months ago, and Wood is only ready for more.
“I’m grateful and I’m thankful that I’m here right now,” he said. “It was a long process, it was a long journey and it happened kind of quick in the past year, but what happened before it was a really long process. It was a lot of downs, but I am where I am now because I worked hard to get here. And now I’m just excited about it.”