It has been a long time since Bobby Wood laced up his boots with the Irvine Strikers in California. Even longer since he played on his native Hawaii with Powder Edge SC.
He only intended to be gone for a year before taking his soccer journey to the high school and college ranks to see where it would develop from there. After 14 years abroad, finding success in Germany and building a reputation as a hard-working goal-scorer, he is finally ready to play his club soccer in his home country.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘Just one more year,’” he smiled and laughed. “It’s been 14 years now. I think it’s time.”
Wood will join Real Salt Lake in the summer on a contract that extends through the 2023 season, bringing the Honolulu-born striker stateside to play his club ball for the first time since he took that leap of faith in 2007, leaving his family in Irvine, California, to spend a year training with 1860 Munich in Germany. After impressing during that year, he climbed through the academy and made his debut at 18 years old in 2011 and has never looked back. He has amassed 50 goals and 21 assists in 241 matches in Germany with 1860 Munich, Erzgebirge Aue, Union Berlin, Hannover 96 and Hamburg.
Now, he is ready to make Salt Lake City home to help bring the club back where it belongs competing for champions on a yearly basis.
“Being able to play and raise my family in the U.S. is something that I’ve wanted to do,” said Wood, whose wife is expecting their second daughter to join the two-year-old that is already the apple of his eye. “All of the puzzle pieces fit very well and Real Salt Lake gave me a really good vibe and it felt right. The timing of everything felt very natural.”
He looks at Real Salt Lake and sees echoes of the clubs he has played with in Germany – both in the highly structured youth academy system and in the family feeling that defines the club.
Like 1860 Munich did for him back in 2007, RSL gives young players an opportunity to develop and has shown a propensity to bringing them all the way up to the first team when the chance is earned. Like Union Berlin, the locker room has a relationship with the fans that runs beyond sheer fandom and into levels rarely seen in professional sports.
The former he has seen in the club’s long track record of signing RSL Academy products and giving them the further development they need to reach US National Team levels. The latter he learned through lengthy discussions with his former Union Berlin teammate and current RSL midfielder Damir Kreilach.
“He only had positive things to say and it gave me a very comforting feeling,” Wood said of Kreilach. “It was really important for me to get into a club that had a family feeling and that’s why it feels so good to come into Real Salt Lake. That was the vibe I got and made it an easy decision.”
Now 28, he has come a long way from his childhood in Honolulu, where many of his games were played in local parks and were followed by a change from soccer shorts to swim trunks before he’d walk to the beach and continue to enjoy island life until the sun faded in the distance.
Most of his youth matches were played against one of three other teams on the island. With such limited competition, he would rely on visiting teams from the mainland to truly measure himself against other players his age.
“It was normal to me back then. Looking at how things are now, it was completely different,” he said. “It was different but it made me who I am.”
When Wood was 12 years old, his mother moved his family to California to expand their opportunities. By 14, he had been spotted by scouts and those opportunities became far greater than he could have imagined.
With the support of his family, he went to Germany alone and sought first to improve before returning stateside, then to see how far he could go as a professional.
“I always had such great family support. They always reminded me to just have fun with it. I always had my family to fall back to when things were going rough,” he said. “I just wanted to work hard and try and make it. I had that opportunity to do well. It’s always important to have good family and friends behind me.”
Within a few years in Germany, he was earning looks with the U.S. U-20 National Team and he made his senior debut at 20 years old in 2013 in a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Soon, he would become a regular under Jurgen Klinsmann. He would go on to score 13 goals with five assists in 45 caps with the U.S., including a match at Rio Tinto Stadium in 2017 against Venezuela in preparation for World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico.
His successes with the national team are a rare feat – he is one of only two players born in Hawaii to have earned caps with the U.S., joining Brian Ching.
“It still doesn’t hit me that I’m one of two players that ever represented the national team. It’s crazy. Thinking about how I was a kid playing in Hawaii, how small the island is and you feel like you know everyone on the island,” Wood said. “It’s an honor. It’s just a great feeling to look back. You feel proud, for sure.”
While he would love to return to the pitch for the Stars and Stripes, his sole focus in coming to Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer is to bring team success to a club that was among the most dominant in the league from 2009-2014.
“I’ve done a lot with the national team, but right now my focus is to get my groove back with Real Salt Lake and be successful individually and as a team and I’ll see what happens after that,” he said. “That’s my number one goal right now.”