Still open after all these years: Chris Wondolowski and the pursuit of MLS' all-time goals record
As Chris Wondolowski closes in on Landon Donovan's record for the most goals in MLS regular-season history, it's clear his pursuit of the mark is a metaphor for his entire career.
You know the San Jose Earthquakes forward is there, you can sense his presence. But then your thoughts drift elsewhere, dazzled perhaps by the record-breaking exploits of Atlanta United's Josef Martinez, the race for the Supporters' Shield between the Five Stripes and the New York Red Bulls, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic's latest golazo.
It seems likely, then, that when Wondolowski does eclipse Donovan's record of 145 regular-season goals -- either this season or next -- he'll do it with a bit of stealth, plenty of guile, and he'll be what he's been throughout his career: MLS' phantom menace.
"I think that in the early portion of his career, Wondolowski was probably able to fly under the radar a little bit," said former LA Galaxy and FC Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman via telephone. "Then you had somebody who was an international and was well regarded. He became sort of an apparition out there and he'd disappear even though he had scored a bunch of goals against you."
Talk to those who played with Wondolowski and against him, and there is immense respect for what he has achieved. But even after 14 seasons, 324 league games and 143 regular-season goals, there is also a touch of bewilderment. He isn't speedy like former Seattle Sounders forward Obafemi Martins, nor is he powerful in the air like the Vancouver Whitecaps' Kei Kamara. He has made a career out of lulling opponents to sleep and then punishing them.
Houston Dynamo defender A.J. DeLaGarza said it best: "When you're marking Wondolowski, he's still open."
So how is it that a player with little in the way of obvious physical gifts has been able to so flummox opposition defenses? It starts with continual movement that never allows him to be marked easily. It was this trait that former Chelsea defender John Terry described as "fantastic" after playing against Wondolowski in the 2012 MLS All-Star Game, a match in which the Quakes forward scored.
"Wondolowski's movement was always about finding a different space, finding an angle," said ESPN analyst Kasey Keller, "a defender gets caught ball-watching and he's not there anymore.
What made Wondolowski's movement so special is that there was a "when" to accompany the "what," revealing an attuned soccer brain.
"I think the thing that really was and has been the cornerstone of his career is the timing of his runs in the box," said former Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers defender Nat Borchers about Wondolowski. "It was more that he was going to outthink you, that was the frustrating thing."
To be clear, there are athletic aspects to Wondolowski's skill set. He remains a player, even at age 35, who is plenty mobile in terms of getting around the field. He also possesses the kind of short burst to get away from defenders, the better to turn tight spaces in the box into bigger ones.
"I think people look at Wondo, there's something -- I don't want to say un-athletic -- very un-traditional about the way he moves on a soccer field," said RSL GM Craig Waibel, who played with and against Wondolowski in San Jose and Houston. "He's so fluid that I think it was deceptive."
His endurance also borders on the legendary. Waibel recalled how when the two were with the Dynamo, Wondolowski would follow up a practice in Houston's sapping humidity with another 20 minutes of finishing work with then-assistant John Spencer. He'd recover in plenty of time to do it again the next day. That dedication paid off on the field -- both in terms of stamina and finishing; 42.3 percent of his shots have hit the target in the past seven seasons compared with the league average of 35.4 percent -- and was noticed by opponents such as Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler.
"You may be able to keep up with Wondolowski for the first half or the first 60 minutes, but over the course of the 90 minutes, I'd be interested to know when he scored goals in games and when his percentage of goals has come in the last 15 or 20 minutes," he said. "I'd say a big factor in that is just his willingness to run throughout the game. He really wears down opposing defenders."
Besler's instincts are correct. According to ESPN Stats & Information, broken into 15-minute intervals, Wondolowski scored a higher percentage of his goals in the second half of games during his career than the league average.
From minutes 46 to 60, Wondolowski scored 17.5 percent of his goals compared to 16.8 percent for MLS league wide. From minute 61 to 75, the percentages were 21.0 percent to 17.1 percent for MLS. From minute 76 to 90, Wondolowski scored 23.1 percent of his goals compared to the league average of 22.4 percent.
Wondolowski is also the ultimate optimist and opportunist. There is simply no such thing as a low-percentage chance.
"As a forward you talk about certain things; always finishing your run, just in case the ball misses everybody and goes all the way through to the back post," said Besler. "Or you follow up the shot just in case the goalkeeper saves it for a rebound.
"Wondo is the only guy that I've played against that does that 100 percent of the time. If there's a shot, I'll put my house on it that Wondo is going to be there following it up. And nine times out of 10 the goalkeeper saves it and nobody recognizes it. But the one time that the goalkeeper doesn't save it, or there's a deflection or whatever happens, he's in that spot. And 10 times out of 10 he makes that run just in case.
So after all of these years and all of these goals, Wondolowski is set to make history. Yet there is still a sense that he is a tad underappreciated, at least outside the Bay Area. Sure, he won the MVP in 2012, the same season he became MLS' single-season joint-record scorer, and was a Best XI selection for three straight seasons starting in 2010. But his miss against Belgium in the round of 16 of the 2014 World Cup still weighs heavy, even as Wondolowski soldiered on in its aftermath. The fact that the Quakes have made the playoffs just twice since he returned to San Jose in 2009 hasn't helped either. Then there is his style of play.
"His game is hard to describe," said Besler. "That's probably why he's still somehow underrated. But to me, scoring goals is a skill, it's just like passing or shooting or running or dribbling. He has this instinct to score, and I don't think enough people rate that and view that as a skill. Some people might look at it and just assume it's hard work or at times luck or whatever reason it is. But in my mind, it's a skill, and he has mastered being able to sniff out a goal. He has this unique ability to figure out where the ball is going to drop before anybody else."
Longevity and consistency can result in being taken for granted. One more goal in 2018 will see the Quakes forward reach double digits for the ninth season in a row, a remarkable stretch. Then there is his personality. While Wondolowski will let out a trademark roar when he scores, the rest of the time he operates in an understated way. And as bigger names like Ibrahimovic and David Villa have joined the league, Wondolowski has been eclipsed.
"Even if he breaks the record, people will put asterisks by it," said Waibel. "It's because he's not the big, flashy, camera-hungry guy, he's not the self-promoting goal scorer. ... He's almost an antithesis of what goal scorers are in terms of personality."
But numbers matter most of all, and on that count Wondolowski will soon be standing atop the MLS goal-scoring heap.