This is a companion piece to senior writer Jeff Bradley's long-form feature "Inside the Meticulous, Manic Mind of an MLS Goalscorer.
One hundred. 100. A c-note of MLS regular-season goals.
Edson Buddle’s going to get there, probably the next MLSer to do so. He’s only seven away. And he’s finally healthy, and he’s starting, and he’s still only 31 years old, and all the kids around him – Dillon Powers, DeShorn Brown, Tony Cascio, and hopefully Kevin Harbottle and Martín Rivero once they can walk – are creating chances. It’s a good recipe, close to the one that Oscar Pareja was aiming for this offseason when the Colorado Rapids brought Buddle in.
Buddle tests Kennedy with early header
But while the big No. 9 eventually is going to hit the mark (I’m going with “90 percent certain” he’ll get there), he’s also a good cautionary tale for the foolishness of projecting goal totals.
MLS 2.0 fans might not remember this, but Buddle was once one of the hottest young prospects in the league. He scored nine goals in 2002 as a 21-year-old, then 10 the next year, and 11 the year after that when the Crew won a Supporters’ Shield. He regressed slightly in 2005, but still scored nine times as Columbus retooled.
Nonetheless, he seemed to be hitting his stride just as he hit his prime. He was 24, had 42 goals, and every chance to write his name into the MLS record books while playing himself into the US national team picture. Then he fell off the face of the earth for a bit.
Buddle’s goal totals went from “9-10-11-9” to “6-5-15-5.” He was more bad than good until 2010, when he scored 17 times as the Galaxy won the Shield. So he earned a trip to Europe, and the whole thing got put on hold.
When he came back to the Galaxy last season, he scored just three times in 19 appearances, hobbling around and looking like a guy who needed an entire preseason of rest and rehab.
I’m beating a severely wounded horse here, but I just want to make this clear: Projecting goal totals is difficult. It’s foolish. It’s, all told, pretty dumb.
So here I go.
Veterans who look like they’ll get there:
Chris Wondolowski (71 goals), Kenny Cooper (67 goals)
Wondo has the remarkable ability to spend most of his time around the 18 while never taking a solid hit. He avoids injury, and that – combined with the sparse minutes he played from age 22 through 27 – means his body is “younger” than the typical 30-year-old. So he should last longer. If you told me he’ll score a dozen goals as a 35-year-old, I’d nod. That sounds perfectly plausible.
Wondo: 2012 Volkswagen MLS MVP
Right now he’s on pace to score 15 goals this season. If he keeps up that rate, he’ll be in striking distance of 100 by the end of the 2014 season. I think he’ll get there before then. And I’ll give him an 80 percent chance of getting there eventually.
Cooper is a bit harder to figure since he’s so hot-and-cold. He’s had both broken bones and soft tissue injuries, and he takes a lot more contact when he gets into the box. And right now, he’s playing more often on the flank for FC Dallas.
But he’s just 28, and his ability to strike a ball should keep him as a viable MLS forward until at least age 33 or 34. That will be enough time to get to 100, and quite possibly well beyond. I’m putting his chances at slightly north of 50 percent.
Veterans who won’t get there:
Carlos Ruiz (88), Brian Ching (82), Eddie Johnson (56), Conor Casey (51), Álvaro Saborío (43)
Ruiz scored 74 goals in his first five MLS seasons. Since then he’s scored 14 times in 54 MLS appearances, and at 33, is coming off the bench for a D.C. United team that hasn’t generated anything. I give him, at best, a 10 percent chance of reaching 100. He might be a better cautionary tale than Buddle.
Ruiz bicycle attempt kept out
Ching is even further away, pretty much off the board. He’s about to turn 35, and hasn’t scored more than eight goals in a season since 2008. Casey is younger, and has looked very good for Philadelphia this year, but there’s little reason to think that, at 31, he has 49 more goals in him. Zero percent chance here.
Saborío is tougher to judge. He’s Casey’s age, but plays starter’s minutes and has remained consistent and durable for both club and country. If he gets 15 this year and 15 next … he’s still 30 away. So let’s give him an outside shot – 15 percent – and no more than that.
At 29, Johnson is younger still. But he’s as inconsistent and injury-prone as anyone on this list, a guy who’s scored double-digit goals three times, and three or fewer goals in a season a whopping seven times. Would you bet on that? Let’s mark him down for 10 percent.
Youngsters who could be in the mix:
Will Bruin (19), Teal Bunbury (19), Jack McInerney (16), C.J. Sapong (14), Juan Agudelo (11)
Bruin would seem to have the best shot at 100 of any of these kids, simply because the Dynamo have such a good track record of keeping talent in the US. But keep this in mind: He’s still likely to finish this season at least 10 goals back of the pace Buddle was on at a similar point in his career.
GOAL: Bruin nods home Davis cross
So even though I’ve gone out on a limb several times to say I think he’ll eventually hit 100 and actually become the league’s all-time leading scorer, I give him just a 25 percent chance of ever breaking into triple digits. Too many things can go wrong, Europe could – maybe even will – come calling, and “durable at 23” is different from “durable at 29.”
Bunbury would probably have the highest current total of this group if not for his torn ACL, which tells both the good and the bad. He’s also got some work to do to get back into the lineup once he is healthy, since Claudio Bieler is scoring for fun. Give Bunbury a 15 percent chance.
McInerney, like Wondolowski, never takes a solid hit, which speaks for his potential longevity. He also has a knack for finding tap-ins, the type of goals which never completely dry up. And at just 20 years old, he’s a fourth-year veteran who’s well ahead of Buddle’s pace, and is only picking up steam.
GOAL: McInerney beats the trap
I wouldn’t bet against him … if he stays in MLS. With Jack Mac, it seems like that’s the more relevant wager, since any 20-year-old who puts the ball in the net is going to attract serious overseas interest. I’ll give him a 10 percent chance.
I’ve given Sapong the courtesy mention here, since he improved his goals total from season one to season two. But a shift to the wing seems to have sapped his confidence, and he’s already 24. Agudelo gets the final nod, in deference to his overall talent. But he’s dealt with a series of injuries already, and it’s not like he’s on a blistering pace to begin with. Let’s put both of them at less than five percent.