Chris Wondolowski still flies under MLS radar despite prolific goals, heroics
During the 2012 MLS All-Star Game, as Chris Wondolowski left the field at halftime, Chelsea captain John Terry fell into step beside him to tell him, in tones of puzzlement as much as admiration, that "your movement is incredible." Wondolowski had lost Terry in the build-up to scoring the first goal of the game, just as he lost multiple MLS defenders that season in equalling the MLS single-season scoring record he now shares with Roy Lassiter and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
It was an outstanding year and for most casual observers, it represented "Wondo" at the peak of his powers, an impression somewhat rubber-stamped by his subsequent miss against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. Yet what's more remarkable about Wondolowski might not be that high-water mark of goals in 2012 but the consistency, if not the peak intensity, with which the goals have just kept coming.
On Saturday night, as the clock ticked deep into injury time, Wondolowski scored his 131st MLS goal to rescue a point at home for San Jose against Philadelphia; in the process, he also passed the 10-goal mark for the season for the eighth consecutive year. To put that into perspective, the player leading the line for the opposition (and notionally its biggest goal threat), C.J. Sapong, has just achieved his first double-digit year in his seventh season in the league. Sapong's season earned him a preliminary Gold Cup slot and articles on his cathartic achievement in finally hitting 10 goals. Wondolowski did the same this year only to fly under the radar.
It's a metaphor of sorts for what Wondolowski does best: ghosting into the spots where he does maximum damage. It's perhaps no coincidence that the miracle year in 2012 came with him efficiently pocketing every piece of spare change as the "Bash Brothers," Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, shook down opposing defenses.
Wondolowski is a classic poacher who is able to operate with clear-sighted efficiency in the clutter of the penalty area, even appreciating the confusion he finds there. He has an eye for goal and a finisher's instincts, but also the eye for the shape of the game of the midfield role he's occasionally been asked to fill. When the ball breaks to him on the edge of the six-yard box, it's rarely by accident that he's loitering there as Terry could testify.
Wondolowski's path to goal takes many diversions and often starts from very deep in the attacking half, but he's always where he's meant to be, even if nobody's quite sure how.
Even the arc of his career has had the hallmarks of unusual movement. Wondolowski was drafted 41st overall in the 2005 draft by San Jose and would spend the next few years patiently knocking in goals for San Jose and then Houston's reserves, before being traded back to the Earthquakes in the middle of 2009 and finally gaining some traction in the first team.
By the time he arrived back in San Jose, he had only four MLS goals to his name. He would add another 18 in 2010, a breakout year that earned him his first Golden Boot. Now, on 131 goals, Wondolowski is in elite company, just three shy of Jaime Moreno's total MLS goal tally, and four behind Jeff Cunningham.
While Landon Donovan's 145-goal record looks safe for now, the sheer exponential relentless of Wondolowski's progress means we can almost pinpoint the date when he might surpass it. Fate has seen to it that many people will remember Wondolowski for the infamous World Cup chance he missed, but his efficiency in converting the chances he's scored is what put him in that position in the first place.
While fans discussed Sapong's potential when the provisional Gold Cup roster came out, or fixated on Dom Dwyer as the next great hope, nobody remarked on Wondolowski being on the list because, of course, it's Wondolowski. What is left to say?
Perhaps, what's left to say is that that eighth successive 10-goal season is an MLS record in its own right and serves as testament to his remarkable tenacity and level-headedness. We might talk about Wright-Phillips as the most under-appreciated striker in the league, but he still has a long way to go before he can touch Wondolowski's goalscoring record. There's also some mild irony in the fact that there are a lot more discussion threads out there on BWP being under-rated than there are on Wondolowski. At times it's almost as if fans resent the lack of novelty in Wondo's relentless scoring -- "He's still playing?" -- but that's hardly his fault.
By next week, we'll be back to talking about David Villa's MVP march, the flickering minor genius of Diego Valeri, the magic of Sebastian Giovinco or, yes, the goals of BWP. And Wondolowski will be back scoring goals under the radar.
Every year throws up new heroes, but Wondo's gonna Wondo.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.