Putting Bobby Wood's historic 2. Bundesliga season in perspective
Bobby Wood is on a heck of a run, and everyone knows it. The United States international has 17 goals this season for Union Berlin, surpassing the previous record of 14 for an American in the top two flights of Germany (Conor Casey, for Karlsruher in 2003-04). Wood has now scored in eight straight games and is chasing the 2.Bundesliga record of 12 consecutive matches with a goal.
There is no question that Wood’s run is impressive, but what does it mean in terms of what we should expect from him in the years ahead? Looking at the evidence, historical traits, as well as Wood’s own personal history, there are both encouraging signs and cautionary tales as to what lies ahead.
To understand his market value, it’s best to look back at the last four 2.Bundesliga seasons and examine the players who scored 15 or more goals, as noted in this compliation of scorers.
Predicting the future for a top 2.Bundesliga forward is rough. Even when excluding the older players, those over 30, to make it comparable to Wood ( who is just 23), there are more flops than success stories. Just last season, Rouwen Hennings left Karlsruhe and has scored just one goal for Burnley in the English second division this season.
But that does not mean Wood hasn’t put himself in a very good situation with Union Berlin. For one, he is the youngest player to be near the top of the 2.Bundesliga scoring leaders in a long time, but it’s also important to remember Wood lost nearly two years of his development after suffering a meniscus injury in 2011. He suffered several reoccurrences and complications while trying to comeback, and it wasn’t until 2013 that he was able to play for a consistent period of time.
Combined with a fallout with his 1860 Munich coach in 2014 and 2015 – something that reduced him to the bench for several months – Wood has had a difficult time coming into his own. His current season at Union Berlin (Wood’s first with the club since leaving Erzgebirge Aue last summer) is his first as a regular starter. He has played 2274 minutes for Union, but before this season, he had played just 2421 minutes in the 2.Bundesliga in his entire career, one that dates back to his debut with 1860 Munich in 2011.
So while many previous 2.Bundesliga leading scorers had career years and used that to move to a bigger league, Wood is doing so in his first real test.
Thomas Rongen was the U.S. U-20 head coach during the 2011 cycle and recalls first seeing Wood by accident when he was in Germany scouting dual-national players. Wood had joined 1860 Munich’s academy in 2007 at the age of 15 after playing for a top California youth team, the Irvine Strikers. Rongen was in Munich to watch a young Julian Green but stuck around an extra day to watch Wood.
The next two years are more critical. He will get to a Bundesliga team. Can he become a starter, first and foremost? If he does, can he become a guy who can consistently score goals? The jury is still out, to be honest."
“He was an interesting guy,” Rongen said of his initial impressions of Wood. “Strong but not tall. He had a low center of gravity. He was equally good with his left and right foot. He had above average feet, I would say … He lacked, in my opinion, the tactical acumen, so to speak, to be very effective at that time. But he's obviously gotten better.”
“[Wood’s success] doesn't surprise me,” he added. “You could clearly tell he was a talented player.”
Rongen is not alone. Amobi Okugo was Wood’s teammate on the U-20 team, and the two also knew each other from the Olympic Development Program in Southern California.
“To be honest, I'm not too surprised (at Wood’s success),” Okugo said. “He had all the talent, he's just finally putting it all together. I think his injuries were very unfortunate, with the timing of them, but now he's got a good run of consistent games, and is doing well. He wasn't great at finishing back then, but that's all changed.”
If the talent has always there to succeed at this level, one question remains: Where does Wood go in the future? Based on the history of those in his situation, all signs point to a Bundesliga move. He is the third-leading scorer in the second division, and the two ahead of him are four and five years older. There is a chance he could finish with 20 goals this season, an amount that hasn’t been reached in that league since 2010/11.
The safe bet is a move to a lower-table Bundesliga team, since that seems to be the market value for a top 2.Bundesliga striker. Earlier in the week, German publication Bild reported Hamburg SV had scouts in attendance over the weekend to watch Wood’s game-winning goal in Union’s 1-0 win over Heidenheim.
Whether Hamburg makes an offer for Wood remains to be seen, but the club is at the historical level for Wood’s next destination (HSV is currently in 12th in the 18-team Bundesliga). As for whether Wood will succeed in the Bundesliga or another top league, that remains to be seen.
Rongen stresses the next challenge will be a steep one for his former player.
“He'll move on,” the Dutch-born Rongen said. “But to me, the 2.Bundesliga and the Bundesliga, and I'm very familiar with German football, there's a huge, huge [difference]. With all due respect, it's like going from the USL or the NASL to the MLS. How many players have made an impact in MLS after they've been dubbed a little bit of a star in USL and NASL? It's few and far between.
“Yes, he's done well, but to me, the next two years are more critical. He will get to a Bundesliga team. Can he become a starter, first and foremost? There are a lot of good players up front for any Bundesliga team. If he does, can he become a guy who can consistently score goals? The jury is still out, to be honest.”
Wood’s success might be with an average 2.Bundesliga team, but in terms of American players, that still puts him among the top echelon of forwards based either abroad or domestically. He will certainly be an important player for Jurgen Klinsmann for the Copa America Centenario.
As is his way, Klinsmann wants Wood seek a higher level.
"The first league has to be his goal," Klinsmann told Hamburger Morgenpost. "He's not a national team player by mistake. Bobby is young and has great plans. I can very well imagine he can have his breakthrough."
Klinsmann is typically optimistic when publically discussing his player’s prospects, but Rongen is correct. The next two years will tell the story of whether Wood will become another stalwart goal scorer.
Right now, he is at a crossroads, but he’s trending in the right direction. That makes him one of the most interesting players to watch heading into this summer’s competition.