The calendar read July 14, and the San Jose Earthquakes had just completed a 5-0 dismantling of Real Salt Lake to firm up their position at the top of the Western Conference standings. Fans were lining up at the exits to scoop up Win Pin #6 of the season, and the players were taking their time running the gauntlet of autograph seekers that lined the corridor toward the locker room.
The last black-clad Buck Shaw hero to emerge from the supporters was none other than Chris Wondolowski. With a wrist sharpied out from so many signed pieces of paraphernalia, but a boot still glowing golden from posting a hat-trick against visiting RSL, Wondo drifted through the media-filled changing room and took station in front of his untouched locker.
As he methodically freed himself from the various black and blue bondages that defined him as part of the Earthquakes team, he endured a litany of questions that served to exalt on his individual excellence. Sure, the win over Real Salt Lake was their third straight over San Jose’s presumed main competitor for the Western Conference crown, but the topic of the night was about Wondolowski’s chase for the MLS scoring summit — Roy Lassiter’s 27 goal haul for the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the 1996 season.
And the discussion proceeding not as though it was a question of if Wondo would catch Lassiter — after all, his hat-trick that night had given him 17 goals already with 14 games to play — but when. And not just when, but by how much would he shatter a mark that has spanned the entire existence of the league.
Wondolowski was his normal unassuming self in answering the barrage of questions. He repeatedly brought the subject back to the success of the team despite the effort of reporters to aim the discussion directly at him. He paraphrased again and again that he would gladly trade scoring another goal all season if it meant the Earthquakes were top of the league and playing for a chance to capture the club’s third MLS Cup Championship.
Titters from both sides seemed to swell from the expectation that Wondolowski’s elevation to the top of the MLS scoring summit was a foregone conclusion. 14 games left on the schedule and only 11 goals needed to break the record? Wondo’s short, bright history of late season dominance virtually guaranteed the accomplishment. One of the marks even the league’s official website put forth as unbreakable seemed destined to find a new steward. "Chris Wondolowski — Scoring Champion" was inevitable.
But then the goals stopped coming. A penalty kick against FC Dallas four days later was ruled off when teammate Justin Morrow was called for early infringement into the area. Wondo was shut out against Vancouver, Chicago, and Seattle. He did notch number 18 via the spot in a disappointing loss at Montreal, but then two more games passed without another goal.
Two months after that impressive hat-trick against Real Salt Lake, two months after the press had anointed him as Lassiter’s successor, and Wondolowski still sits 9 goals behind the MLS best. Questions from the press have turned instead to what is wrong with Wondo and what has precipitated such a scoring slump. He brushed the assertions that something was wrong aside and instead directed the questioners to look at the standings — the Earthquakes were still topping the league, Wondo’s main goal all along.
So is it too late for the Earthquakes MVP to make a go at Lassiter’s hallowed mark of 27 goals? Realistically the answer seems to be yes, but Wondo has not played realistically since bursting on to the scene late in the 2009 season. The following year, after netting 8 times in his 20 games, Wondolowski rattled off 10 goals in the last 8 games of the season to pip Los Angeles Galaxy forward Edson Buddle at the line for the MLS Golden Boot. In 2011, he scored 8 goals in his last 9 games and finished the season tied for the league’s best total with league MVP Dwayne De Rosario. What does Wondo have planned for the last 7 games of this Earthquakes season?
The club has already qualified for the postseason, but every player and coach has made the point that the Supporters’ Shield is the target. If Wondolowski can lead from the front via his goal scoring, then the second Shield in franchise history is well within sight. And even if he isn’t scoring, Wondo can still architect the feat through his growing number of assists. With 6 helpers already in 2012, the Earthquakes most prolific goal scorer of the past three seasons has nearly matched his entire assist output in his previous 7 MLS seasons.
Catch him or not, Wondolowski will gladly trade away breaking Lassiter’s record for the continued success of the team. And for that alone, he may get his desire to soon hoist aloft the MLS Cup.