Chris Wondolowski's early MLS career experience is well documented. Drafted #41 overall in 2005 by the San Jose Earthquakes in the Supplementary Draft and not the more prestigious SuperDraft, Wondolowski made two appearances for a total of five minutes his rookie season. Then, when the franchise was moved to Houston, he continued to toil away in anonymity, excelling for the Dynamo reserves but not getting lot of chances with the first team. In fact, Wondolowski made only 19 starts in four-plus seasons with Houston before he was traded to San Jose on June 9, 2009.
And that transaction was the pivot point in his professional soccer career.
The head coach of the Quakes at that time was, of course, Frank Yallop, and the man who guided the club to two MLS Cup championships earlier in the decade knew he had a potential impact player at his disposal. Wondolowski knew how to score goals -- he was the unofficial "King of the MLS Reserve League" in his time with the Dynamo -- but had not been able to crack the starting line-up with players like Brian Ching ahead of him. San Jose would provide a much more open environment for Wondo to make his mark.
Yallop didn't start Wondolowski right away, preferring to ease him into the line-up first as a substitute and then as a spot starter. The striker's first goal for the Earthquakes came on August 2, 2009, against the Seattle Sounders, when he finished a Shea Salinas delivery to extend San Jose's lead to 4-0 in that one-sided affair. He scored twice more as summer turned to fall before being shut down in October with a knee injury that required surgery. Yallop had only begun his tutelage of Wondolowski at that point, and great things were forecast for 2010.
MLS Golden Boot, team Most Valuable Player and third overall for the league MVP, league-best nine game-winning-goals, ten consecutive goals for his team to set a MLS record -- Wondolowski burst onto the scene in 2010. Opponents struggled to find ways to slow down the Earthquakes forward, but they were mostly unsuccessful. Wondo continued his dominance, and season after season brought more personal accolades and much team success.
"He's a great kid to start with, and I am happy that he did so well," said Yallop this week. "I'm very pleased for him, and he deserves everything he gets, that guy, because he does it every year."
Yallop left the team in 2013, not a season removed from earning MLS Coach of the Year honors and elevating Wondolowski to MLS MVP, and prior to the 2014 season landed with the Chicago Fire as their new head coach. The teacher was now on the other team's bench, and he would have to find a way to slow down his creation.
"You can know him inside and out, which obviously I do, but to stop him is one thing," said Yallop, before adding a caveat that only a former highly regarded defender would dare to say. "I can't play, so that's a bit of a shame."
Yallop's Fire faced the Earthquakes last season and were dismantled 5-1 at Buck Shaw Stadium, a match he admitted his team was not prepared for, and Wondolowski was there to torment his former mentor in the same way he did while Yallop's man against other coaches. The Fire visit San Jose again this season, this time as the Earthquakes opponent when they open up Avaya Stadium for its MLS debut, and Yallop knows the task of slowing down Wondolowski will be a challenge.
"He's probably going to get a couple of chances, so he's a tough one," said Yallop. "It's very difficult to tell our players exactly how he is going to do it because he finds a way of getting it done. He's very good at finding that space when not many people can."
Yallop said that he had carefully watched the first two Earthquakes games of 2015, the last-second 1-0 loss at FC Dallas and the impressive 3-2 win at the Seattle Sounders, and he came away impressed with his former protégé.
"What a fantastic result they had in Seattle with ten men for much of the second half," said Yallop. "It's back to business for Wondo, for sure. You can't give him chances like that and expect him not to bury them. He took his two chances well."
So will the extra scouting and the intimate knowledge of what makes Wondolowski tick give Yallop any sort of advantage when it comes to preparing his Fire team to stop the Quakes striker?
"No" said Yallop with a chuckle, "because every team that plays against Wondo thinks that they can figure him out. We just have to be wary of him and just don't give him many good looks, but it is the hardest thing in the business to do."
The Chicago Fire will have its chance to stop Wondolowski this Sunday when they visit Avaya Stadium to take on the Earthquakes. Kick off is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. Pacific time, and the sold-out match will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1 as part of MLS Soccer Sunday.