The MLS' Cinderella Story
Chris Wondolowski doesn’t stand still.
Just ask John Terry. The former Chelsea captain was tasked with marking Wondolowski during the 2012 MLS All-Star game, and saw first hand just why he is a tricky opponent.
“Your movement is incredible,” Terry told Wondolowski as they exited the pitch at half-time, Wondolowski having opened the scoring in the 21st minute. “It’s a nightmare for me.”
Terry was neither the first nor last defender to suffer an anxious 45 minutes against Wondolowski, but the fact a player of his calibre struggled at all goes some way to explaining the striker’s Cinderella story in football.
The 36-year-old was the opposite of high-profile when his hometown team the San Jose Earthquakes drafted him in the last round of the Supplemental Draft (which was used mostly to recruit young reserve players that would not count against the salary cap).
Wondolowski had emerged from Chico State, an NCAA Division II school more celebrated for producing parties than athletes. His early MLS career was a struggle. In four seasons he played just 922 minutes, scoring four goals.
It hardly sounded like the precursor to a glittering career in front of goal, one that hit a new high at the weekend when Wondolowski secured the league’s all-time goalscorer record. Scoring four times against the Chicago Fire, it was his second goal, No. 146 that broke Landon Donovan's all-time MLS record.
“It’s crazy,” the forward mentioned, “My rookie year I was envisioning 148 minutes. If I got that, that would have been pretty cool. Honestly, I’m just having fun right now, it’s rejuvenating and it has reignited this passion. I’m really having fun right now. It’s so surreal that I get a message from Landon Donovan, that he even knows my name. It’s still crazy and boggles my mind that that’s the level.”
The path from then to now has involved a lot of hard work. Wondolowski has registered at least double figures in MLS for nine seasons in a row. Often when we consider the best strikers in the league we can define their attributes easily. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has size and skill, Josef Martinez has speed and timing so he can hang on the shoulder of the last defender.
Speak to those that have played with and against Wondolowski, however, and that dissection becomes difficult. He is not a world class athlete. He wouldn’t match Martinez in a race, nor is he built like the taekwondo loving Swede. Wondolowski is just in the right place at the right time.
“I think that I was lucky enough to learn from an early age that movement in the box gets me open,” he said. “I've never been the fastest or strongest one, so it's nice to have a little more time or to get open. I've always tried to read the game and I study tapes and I watch a lot of games. I enjoy watching the game and enjoy trying to pick out and try to pick parts that I think I can do better and where I can anticipate and read the game as well.”
That instinctual ability runs parallel to Wondolowski’s work on the training field. Former teammates tell stories about how the striker would follow up a practice in the draining heat of Houston with an extra finishing session. He is relentless.
“One of the many reasons I love this game is you can never perfect this game,” he said. “It’s always ever-evolving. And you can change certain things, but you'll never have the same exact play again.”
It’s those factors, along with a string of stirling character references, that make Wondolowski so easy to like. The forward’s rise, from overlooked draft pick to all-time leading scorer is a story that resonates throughout sport.
“I think he took advantage of being able to play today,” Quakes coach Matias Almeyda said. “He took advantage of it really well. I had a chat with him last week in which I was congratulating him for the way he trains in every practice session.
It is also a story that is becoming rarer in Major League Soccer. The league is evolving. There is less reliance on domestic players, less reliance on the SuperDraft for talent, with fewer and fewer chances for those Cinderella stories to blossom.
The pool of foreign players is expanding, and while other players earn column inches and screen-time for their off-field flash and personality Wondolowski maintains a humble, understated, presence. That is why Wondolowski being given the accolade for all-time leading scorer is a fitting. It is a reminder of what the league at one time represented.
It wasn’t perfect but it wanted to get better, just like Wondolowski.