On the doorstep of history, one goal away from reaching 100 for his Major League Soccer career, San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski is aware of how special an achievement the century mark in scoring is considered. After all, now in its 20th season, MLS has welcomed only eight players into that exclusive and illustrious union, and Wondolowski is appreciative of the opportunity to become its ninth.
"I've studied this league, and I am very proud to be a part of it," said Wondolowski. "So I know who's up there. It's crazy to think that, the special part of it. It's just a number, but it's a number where some of the best that have played in this league have reached. I am not there yet, but I'm hoping to be there and be synonymous with those names. It's pretty unreal, to be honest."
The all-time scoring list century club, in order from one to eight, are some of the legendary players that have called MLS home for the majority of their careers: Landon Donovan (144), Jeff Cunningham (134), Jaime Moreno (133), Ante Razov (114), Jason Kreis (108), Dwayne De Rosario (104), Taylor Twellman (101), and Edson Buddle (100). Buddle was the latest to join the list, having accomplished the feat last August as a member of the Colorado Rapids.
"Ninety-nine goals for Chris Wondolowski is an incredible achievement," said head coach Dominic Kinnear last weekend after Wondolowski scored against the Columbus Crew. "To see where he's come from, Chico State, Reserve League player, to a guy that wasn't getting a ton of chances. Tonight, he had more than one good chance, and maybe with a little luck he could have finished more, but all the credit goes to him. He puts the work in every day, and he doesn't miss a chance to improve his game."
Wondolowski was drafted by Kinnear and the Earthquakes ahead of the 2005 season and he made two appearances as a rookie before he and the franchise were uprooted and moved to Houston. Over the next three-and-a-half years, before a midseason trade in 2009 that returned him to San Jose, Wondolowski made 37 appearances, 11 of them starts, and notched 4 goals. He was prolific with the Dynamo reserve squad, but he just couldn't find his stride with the first team.
"He had an inner belief that in a time in his career when things weren't going great early on, he didn't give up," ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told Center Line Soccer. "His sense of self belief is arguably in the top of this league. When you look at his background and his fortitude to get to where he is, the best quality that Wondo has is that he maximized every ounce of his ability. When you do that as a player, you don't have any regrets when it is all said and done, and I admire that the most about Wondo."
Whereas Twellman was a success from the moment he started his MLS career, scoring 91 goals in his first six seasons and capturing the MVP and scoring titles in 2005, Wondolowski had to bide his time as a part-time player over a similar span until 2010 when he scored 18 goals and won the league's Golden Boot. Prior to that breakout season, Wondolowski was known more for his Reserve League exploits, where in four years he tallied a league-record 34 goals in 46 appearances.
"I wouldn't say that I'm surprised," Sacramento Republic FC head coach Preki told Center Line Soccer. "I could tell from the early days when I was coaching Chivas USA and he played against our reserve team when he was with Houston Dynamo, he had some very good qualities, especially around the goal. He is one of those players that doesn't do much for a long period of time, but if you give him a moment in the box, he will put the ball in the net. You always have to keep on eye on him."
Wondolowski entered the 2010 Earthquakes season following surgery that cut short his 2009 campaign, and the future face of the franchise was just an afterthought on the roster. However, when given the chance to play by then head coach Frank Yallop in the third game of the season, Wondolowski immediately seized the opportunity, never once taking for granted his time on the field, and scored a goal in four straight starts.
"I don't think anyone predicted when Chris Wondolowski was traded from Houston to San Jose that 100 goals would follow," said Twellman. "Chris has a great opportunity to be near the top of the list, if not the top, but he also has the opportunity, as many players have before him, of not doing so. He's turned in one hell of a career to this moment, one that many did not see would be a 100-goal plateau, and that is what this is about."
There are some that won't admit that Wondolowski belongs among the league's all-time greats, that he is simply an opportunistic goal poacher that is simply in the right place at the right time. But that overlooks what is Wondolowski's greatest strength: his determination to get on the end of service in the box and force opposing defenses to take notice of wherever he is on the field. That and his uncanny ability to turn the ball into the back of the net, whether with his right foot, his left foot, his head -- any part of his body as allowed by the rules of the game.
"To score goals, you have to be put into positions to get them," said Preki. "And with Wondo, you give him a chance or two, he will definitely put them in the net. While there aren't too many similarities between us, we both when we get a chance or two in front of goal, with our ability to put that ball in the back of the net, that calmness, that ability to size things up quickly, to get the shot on frame, that's what we both have in common, the ability to finish."
Preki won two MLS MVP awards, the second in 2003 when he was 40 years old, and two Golden Boot titles during a stellar career that saw him total the 16th most goals (79) and fifth most assists (112) in MLS history. Wondolowski has now matched Preki in the Golden Boot category while earning his own MVP award in 2012. And at just 32 years old, if he stays healthy, could match or surpass those honors earned by Preki, Twellman, and the other players that have reached the 100-goal club.
"Of course, I don't see why not," said Preki. "It all depends on how healthy he stays, how many games he plays, what kinds of players he has around him the rest of his career. Those are all the questions that will determine how far he goes."
"He had a team built around him over the last four or five years that suits him," added Twellman. "He is not expected to be a target forward, to be a true number 9. He's not. He's expected to be Chris Wondolowski, a second forward who floats around, finds seams in the defense, and finds pockets of space in and around the 18-year box. That's what his job is. As he ages, that doesn't necessarily change, because he has never been the fastest, he has never been the strongest, and that sixth-sense doesn't go away. I don't think Father Time hurts him."
And just as important as the team that Wondolowski will have around him now and into future seasons as he attempts to climb to the top of the MLS all-time scoring list is his mental strength, one honed by the years of servitude he put in below the first team, and one crafted by his experience playing through the difficult moments.
"His success is not a coincidence, he also has a unique quality of not having a conscious," said Twellman. "He has missed many chances in his career, yet he has scored plenty of goals, and I think that is a great attribute that very few goal scorers have."
In just the ten-plus MLS regular seasons he has played, Wondolowski has taken 559 shots, 252 shots on target, to tally his 99 goals. He has scored only one goal in five MLS playoffs starts, and in 2012 missed a critical shot against the LA Galaxy in a disappointing first round exit to the eventual champions. Most infamously, as a member of the U.S. men's national team, Wondolowski skied a last minute shot against Belgium in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 that would have sent the USA through to a quarterfinal match against Argentina. The failed scoring chance is simply known as "The Miss" to U.S. supporters.
"Chris has missed his share of chances, fair enough, but not dwelling on them and moving on to the next play is attributed to the early part of his career," said Twellman. "He's wanted the chance to play for so long that he wasn't going to allow for those five years at the early stage of his career when he wasn't playing regularly, he wasn't going to allow a missed chance to ruin it, because he knew what it took to get to that level and that's why he's done a great job, in that sense, of not having a conscious."
Wondolowski returned from Brazil a pariah to many fans, at least those not living in the Bay Area, but he faced his critics and took his lumps on social media and at away matches for the rest of the 2014 MLS season. Unfazed, he added nine more regular season goals last year and six more this season. U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has continued to call him in for national team duty, and since last summer's World Cup, Wondolowski has added four more caps to his career total of 27.
"It's a testament to understanding your role," said Twellman, not surprised that Klinsmann has continued to extend Wondolowski's international career. "When you come down to it, it's part of your job as a center forward to take shots, to score goals, so you might as well score them."
So with the century mark next on his agenda, Wondolowski turns his attention to the Earthquakes next game, a clash with expansion side Orlando City SC at Levi's Stadium on Sunday. Given his MLS career scoring rate of 0.58 goals per 90 minutes played -- only Twellman's and Raul Diaz Arce's rates are higher on the top-25 all-time goal scorers list -- the odds are very good that Wondolowski will score his 100th goal this weekend or next.
"When you look at the 100 goal plateau, you have to keep in mind the number of games played and what those guys have done," said Twellman. "It's a group of players that have done it in a variety of ways, and Chris isn't going to admit it, nor should he, but he'll realize it when it is all said and done, that it is a hell of an accomplishment."