As the red Ford F-250 Crew Cab pickup truck rolled down Interstate 85, Gordon Wild had his eyes glued on the surroundings beyond the front seat window.
Wild had just gotten off his nine-hour flight to the Charlotte Douglas International Airport – the first time he’d stepped foot in the United States. As South Carolina Upstate assistant coach Scott Halkett drove Wild toward the German’s new home, each fast food restaurant, from Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits to Chick-fil-A to Cracker Barrel, astonished Wild as they passed by.
ABOVE: Wild was born into a circus family, but after trying the sport as a child, he hated it. He stuck to soccer.(File photo/The Diamondback.)
It was all new to Wild, who was accustomed to his mom’s home cooking in Cologne, Germany. Little did Wild know at that time he was about to take college soccer by storm.
Wild played soccer growing up, but his parents wanted him to get an education, too, so he attended school in the U.S. He ended up at USC Upstate, where he led the nation in scoring with 16 goals.
The 5-foot-10 forward has scored the same number of times this season — the third-best mark in the country — only his production has come as a part of the undefeated Maryland men’s soccer team, which enters the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
When Wild left Germany two years ago, he didn’t know how he’d stack up against American competition. Now, he’s at the helm of the nation’s second-best scoring offense that will be the focal point of Maryland’s national championship pursuit.
“The kid’s a monster,” goalkeeper Cody Niedermeier said. “That man just scores goals. It’s something in his blood or something. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
ABOVE: Soccer is the most popular sport in Germany, so Wild’s hometown had five soccer fields. He played for six hours every day growing up.(Photo courtesy of the Wild family.)
When he wasn’t playing soccer growing up, Wild learned how to perform somersaults and backflips. Wild’s parents performed in the circus, so they brought him to practice.
He hated it.
“He wasn’t in the mood for that,” said Johnny Meyer, Wild’s father. “Soccer was his passion. We let him have his own passion. We didn’t want to force him.”
Wild stuck with soccer, which he began playing as a 3-year-old. He fell in love with the sport, the most popular hobby in Germany, and could play it whenever he liked.
Wild’s hometown had five soccer fields.
“We didn’t have anything else,” Wild said. “We could just walk there. There was no crime. Kids just came over, ‘Hey, you want to go kick the ball.’ That’s what we did all day.”
Until he was 11, Wild played with his friends from 1-7 p.m. each day. That training helped Wild develop a strong shot, one that has allowed him to score from virtually anywhere in the attacking-third.
Wild’s parents signed him up for his first soccer club when he was four years old. At first, Wild was intimidated by his peers, many of whom stood taller than him because of his late growth spurt. But as he continued to practice with his friends, he became the star of the club before playing for some of Germany’s top youth leagues.
“Germany is a complete soccer country,” Wild said. “Everyone looks up to soccer players. It’s like basketball, football and baseball players combined into one sport. It grabs a lot of attention, and everybody wants to try it out.”
Wild took notice of his parents’ day-to-day circus training. Between practicing, eating healthy and stretching, they dedicated the majority of their time to it. Their work ethic taught Wild what it took to reach his soccer goals.
“We always said, ‘Gordon, if you want to become a professional soccer player, you just have to train twice as much as the others, whether you have talent or not,’” said Wild’s mother, Irene. “To show your talent in front of an audience, that’s nothing new to him. You have to overcome your ego while working in a team. He was sucking this life into himself since he was born.”
As one of the top German soccer players in his age group, Wild was invited to Mainz’s youth academy when he was 16.
Mainz is one of 18 teams in the Bundesliga, the highest division of German soccer, and soccer was a priority there. The team held practices every morning and evening. Wild watched film daily and learned from his teammates, some of whom got called up to play for the Mainz first team and train with the German national team, which is the reigning World Cup champions.
Living at a boarding school 90 minutes from his home, Wild saw some of his friends quit due to the intensity of the training.
Some days were a challenge, but Wild said he made his largest developments with Mainz.
“That was really a hard change,” Irene Wild said. “You have to imagine that there are hundreds of thousands of boys that it’s the biggest dream of their life to be scouted by a Bundesliga club.”
ABOVE: It didn’t take long for Wild to integrate into American culture. The largest change was not having his mom’s home cooked meals, such as schnitzel and spaetzle.(Photo courtesy of USC Upstate Athletic Communications)
Irene Wild couldn’t stop crying for two weeks.
After two years with Mainz, Gordon Wild and his parents felt he should go to school in the U.S. and Irene Wild couldn’t contain her emotions.
“At 16 to move out of the house was tough too,” Irene Wild said. “I thought, ‘We’ve done that already.’ But we really didn’t expect it like that. It was really, really tough.”
Competing in the circus, Gordon Wild’s parents knew how important an education was as a back up to athletics in case of an injury. In Germany, many of the soccer players play professionally without getting a strong education. America offered a different option. Wild could land a scholarship to pursue a business administration degree while chasing his athletic goals.
“We would not let our son who we loved more than anything else in the world be away from us if we didn’t know it would be for something really good,” Irene Wild said. “Gordon is a very positive thinking and very ambitious, very wanting-to-win person. We had a feeling the U.S. suits his character.”
Wild signed up for Sport-Scholarship, a recruiting agency that sends international players’ information to American college coaches.
USC Upstate coach Greg Hooks has recruited German players for years through this service — the team currently has five Germans on its roster. Wild’s video impressed him.
Hooks contacted Wild and his parents in May. It was late in the recruiting process, and most schools had given out their scholarships by February. One of Hooks’ players left the team before the season, though, so he had room for Wild and offered him a scholarship.
When Wild arrived in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he and the other four Germans on the squad clicked. Defender Lukas Sommer, who’s from Nordwalde, Germany, took Wild around campus, showing him the soccer fields, stadium, facilities and weight room. They talked about the program and their similar culture. The pair became best friends, and Wild felt at home.
Wild’s brother also had a friend living in Spartanburg, so Wild visited him whenever he needed a ride or a home-cooked meal.
Both of Wild’s parents can speak English, so he was comfortable with the language. Wild said the biggest change was not having home-cooked meals, especially some of his favorite foods, such as schnitzel and spaetzle. But he and his German teammates found a substitute in Chipotle.
“It’s not that different from Germany or Europe,” Sommer said. “It’s pretty much the same.”
Wild didn’t score in any preseason games, but in the second match of the regular season, he notched four goals. That performance gave Wild confidence, and from there he scored 12 more times en route to winning Atlantic Sun freshman of the year.
“They come from a culture that soccer is very important,” Hooks said. “They tend to be technical and skillful players. All of them, Gordon included, have been exceptional students. They’ve all been hard workers and they’re very serious about soccer.”
ABOVE: Wild scored multiple goals in the second game of both his college seasons, and he hit his stride from there.(File photo/The Diamondback)
When Maryland traveled to play Clemson in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals last December, coach Sasho Cirovski’s iPhone buzzed.
It was an email from Wild, who was interested in transferring to Maryland to compete against the nation’s top talent. Cirovski had heard about “some freshman” who led the NCAA in scoring, but he had never spoken to Wild.
While Maryland competed for a national championship, Wild visited Syracuse, UCLA, San Diego and San Francisco, some of the other historically strong college soccer programs. But Cirovski made Wild promise to visit Maryland before making a decision.
Wild visited College Park last winter. He met the coaching staff, saw the team’s facilities, and toured Landmark, where a lot of the soccer players live.
He committed on the spot.
“It’s the best soccer school in the country,” Wild said. “What Sasho created here is special and unique. It’s something I’m enjoying every day. His whole mentality, passion, his whole commitment to this program, how he sees things — that’s something that inspired me. I couldn’t say no to this. There was no way.”
Before offering Wild a scholarship, Cirovski spoke with two Atlantic Sun coaches. He also spoke to Hooks, who coached against some of the nation’s top talent as an assistant at Clemson. He told Cirovski that Wild was capable of the switch.
Cirovski then spoke with Wild’s parents over the phone, and both parties were convinced Wild would fit into the Terps program. Wild’s parents said former coaches promised Wild would have a certain role on past teams, only for those verbal commitments to fall through.
They knew Cirovski would be different.
“I’ve had many trainers in my soccer mom life, and I’ve never heard someone so convincing and with so much experience as Sasho Cirovski,” Irene Wild said. “I was convinced that this is absolutely the best coach and the best program. No false promises. No bullshit.”
ABOVE: Wild wears wristbands with his mom’s and dad’s initials. He kisses them and points his index fingers to the sky after every goal he’s scored this season.(File photo/The Diamondback)
When defender Chris Odoi-Atsem saw Wild shoot for the first time this past summer, it reminded him of one of the Terps’ former stars.
Forward Patrick Mullins, who played for Maryland from 2010 to 2013, had a quick and powerful strike similar to Wild’s. He’s Maryland’s second all-time leading scorer (47 goals) and now plays for D.C. United.
“Gordon is a great player, and I love playing with him,” midfielder Eryk Williamson said. “I kind of [expect] if from him because he’s scored so many goals this year. It’s kind of like, ‘Oh, there’s Gordon again.’”
Cirovski thought Wild would hit his stride by October, guessing it would take some time for him to integrate into the coach’s up-tempo and high-pressure system after arriving over the summer. But early in the season, Wild proved he could thrive at this level.
After scoring twice in Maryland’s second contest of the season, Wild took off. The sophomore has scored 16 goals, which ranks third in the country. He’s also stepped up in multiple situations with Maryland on the verge of losing for the first time this season. Wild leads the Big Ten with six game-winning goals.
Wild played in five German clubs growing up, so he said the experience of adapting to several different systems helped soothe his transition.
Off the field, Wild had no problems fitting in. He lives in Landmark with defender Alex Crognale, forward George Campbell and Niedermeier.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Gordon could do it,” Hooks said. “He had the desire and the work ethic to allow him to succeed. It probably would’ve been more surprising had he not succeeded.”
Wild hasn’t forgotten those who helped him get here, though.
Every game, Wild wears a wristband on each arm. He wrote “IW,” his mom’s initials, on his right band. His left reads “JM,” his dad’s initials. Each time Wild scores, the German striker kisses both wristbands and points his index fingers to the sky.
Two years ago, Wild couldn’t have guessed he’d have this opportunity. Back then it was just a dream.
“America changed my whole life,” Wild said. “I love the school and I love the education. The future is also looking bright. I’m living my own little American dream.”