27 days 'til MLS: Rocket Roy has company at the top
As the MLS season approaches, MLSsoccer.com marks each passing day with a different statistic, observation or talking point, setting the stage for March 2.
27 – Still the league record for most goals scored in a season
Every league has records, ones that transcend the individual who set them and become a part of the game itself. For baseball, it's 56. In the NHL, it's 215. An even 100 is still the mark for the NBA.
In MLS, 27 may have joined that club. Last season, as the weather cooled off and Chris Wondolowski once again heated up, Roy Lassiter's single-season record for goals became more than just a target: It became a mission for a team that would take home their first Supporters' Shield since being reborn, and the symbol of a league suddenly bursting with attacking talent.
The "Can he catch Rocket Roy?" talk started up early for Wondo, as he came out of the gates firing home 11 goals in the season's first 10 games. By the middle of July, he was up to 17 goals in 20 games, and a real run at the mark seemed all but assured. The Quakes were rolling, and Wondolowski just seemed to have a knack for finding the right gap between even the most fundamentally sound defense. He was the master of the one-touch finish, and goals like that don't just go away.
But that's exactly what they did. Somehow the league's most lethal finisher contrived to miss from inside the six time after time. He had a penalty saved, he botched headers and he basically couldn't find the net with a map over the next seven games. 17 goals in 20 turned into 18 in 27, and that was pretty much that.
We were wrong, of course. Wondo finished 2012 exactly how he'd finished the previous two years: banging in goals at a record pace. He put home nine in San Jose's last seven games, including a penalty in the last game of the season at Portland, to pull even with Lassiter. No. 28 wouldn't follow, and now there are two names at the top of the list.
Now "27" feels more breakable than "56", "215" or "100." All three of those sports are in a different era than the one in which the record was set – even Gretzky's magic is three decades in the past.
But that's the thing: It's a different era for MLS, too, one in which the game is played differently.
The gaudy goal totals of the late 1990s were typically the product of one playmaking genius repeatedly finidng the perfect service for one forward who knew how to beat a napping defense. It's been said that "Lassiter was the tool Carlos Valderrama used to put the ball in the net," and while that sells Roy a bit short, the point is made. He had El Pibe and Steve Ralston. So did Mamadou Diallo, when he went for 26 in 2000. Raúl Díaz Arce had Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno. Stern John's 1998 push coincided with the arrival of Andy Williams, who set up 12 of his goals in the final 13 games.
Nobody on the Quakes fit that role. They spread the wealth, with seven different players registering six or more assists. Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart joined Wondo with double-digit goals. It was a perfect storm of modern, pragmatic soccer – overlapping fullbacks, pacy wingers and central midfield ball winners who spread the field with quick, accurate switches. Maybe 1996 still feels like yesterday to some of us, but in terms of the way the game is generally played, it may as well be another century (sorry, sorry – try the soup).
And it's not just MLS. The European Footballer of the Year in '96 was Matthias Sammer, the great German sweeper. If you think the pure No. 10 is an endangered species, please spare a prayer for the sweeper, who's gone entirely extinct.
To me, that's why "27" has some magic to it. It's not just a number anymore – it's a symbol of a league that's come full-circle back to attacking soccer after the defensive doldrums of late 2000s, and done so in a modern way.
So will the record stand for much longer? I don't think so. But Wondo's 2012, combined with Lassiter's legendary '96 season, will make it just a bit more special when someone – anyone – finally tops them.