National Writer: Charles Boehm

"No regrets": MLS legend Chris Wondolowski reflects as new San Jose chapter begins

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Even at a press conference in his honor, Chris Wondolowski had the air of someone who still couldn’t quite believe his luck. Of someone who maybe wasn’t really supposed to be there.

“I have to go clothes shopping,” he wisecracked, glancing down at the unfamiliar button-down shirt he was wearing for the Tuesday press conference marking his retirement from the San Jose Earthquakes roster to their technical staff, in a custom-tailored role working with newly-promoted general manager Chris Leitch. “I had to go deep into the closet. I’m used to shorts and a T-shirt.”

Last year his former teammate Sam Cronin described Wondo to The Athletic as “just your normal buddy who happens to have figured out a way to be an absolute assassin goal scorer,” and that vibe still resonates. Asked whether he thinks his lofty all-time MLS scoring record of 171 career regular-season goals will ever be touched, Wondo, now approaching his 39th birthday, readily said yes, and managed to work in a self-deprecating joke about being a misfit toy in the league’s pantheon.

“MLS is still a young league, and it’s growing. And the talent that they're getting over here, I think it’s going to be [broken] eventually. I wouldn't be surprised if it's Josef Martinez, someone of that caliber,” he said.

“It means a lot because for me, just selfishly, I get to be mentioned with Landon Donovan [and other greats] – I feel bad for Josef Martinez because if he does pass me, he's passing Chris Wondolowski – it’s like, 'oh, whatever.' Sucks for him, but it's cool for me that I get him passing me. It's one of those where just being mentioned with some of those names, it's pretty cool.”

If Leitch and the Quakes are smart, they won’t enforce too strict an office dress code on MLS’ goals king. He’s the peoples’ champion, after all, a 2005 Supplemental Draft pick turned Designated Player, a blue-collar guy who once strolled onto the Oakland Coliseum gridiron to be honored by his beloved Raiders and kicked a few long-range field goals for fun, never mind the couple-three beers he’d downed at the tailgate. Wearing a button-down every now and then is one thing; becoming buttoned down is quite another.

"He never stopped working"

Wondo has said himself he’d probably be in the cheap seats with the supporters’ groups if he hadn’t made it as a player. And for quite a long time, including the first several years of his professional career, it looked for all the world like he wouldn't.

Then 2010 happened, the season when this late bloomer finally hit his stride at age 27, racking up 18 goals en route to an out-of-nowhere Golden Boot presented by Audi win and a playoff upset of Thierry Henry’s star-studded New York Red Bulls, a moment Wondo cited as his favorite. It was the first of 10 consecutive double-digit scoring campaigns, an unreal passage of consistent output unmatched in league annals and a case study in preparation, perceptiveness and persistence.

“Saturday's training session, his last training session – he was literally the last one on the field after the training session, heading into the last game of his career. If that doesn't tell you about Chris Wondolowski, I don’t know what will,” said Leitch. “Not only was he a great goal scorer, but he never stopped working … He always won fitness tests, even this year, in his 17th season, which is a testament to his continued dedication.”

Tellingly, among the many colleagues and loved ones Wondolowski took care to hail were the coaches who spent those long, long hours helping him hone his craft on the training ground.

“Especially, actually the assistant coaches, I need to give a lot of thanks for,” he noted with a grin, “because they're the ones who I spent probably the most time with, and probably need hip replacements or knee replacements. Ian Russell served so many balls, Steve Ralston, John Spencer, the amount of time they worked with me through the years.”

The magical, odds-defying tale of Wondo, his amazing journey from Sunday morning reserve games to the MLS record book, from NCAA Division II to the 2014 World Cup, has been told once or twice by now. And it’s a tribute to him that not only Tuesday’s media event, but Sunday’s final match at PayPal Park were celebrations of that incredible saga, joyous occasions despite the inevitable “melancholy,” to use his word, of one last season’s end, the California sun setting on an iconic run that neither he nor anyone else could have imagined at the start.

“It was a bit fast. I always knew retirement was there. There was always that elephant in the room,” he said on Tuesday. “It was something that was on my mind, even throughout last year. I always wondered and tried to make sure I could fit in and help the team in any way possible. I think it was just coming to that realization that this is a great time. It’s clean cut. I think that I gave everything I could and that was it.”

"No regrets, at all"

In that sense Wondo is just following through on a decision he made last year, then wisely reconsidered after COVID-19 blew everything up. He’s glad he stuck it out until fans were back in stadiums, and even as a supersub he continued to score and create at a healthy clip. His clever, ghosting movement, elite interpretation of space and clinical finishing touch remain, aging like wine. He could probably keep this up into his 40s. Leitch tried to nudge him in that direction, too.

But he won’t. He’s ready.

“I would be lying if I didn't say I looked at every possibility to try to continue to play. I still have that love and passion,” Wondolowski said, reckoning retirement won’t really hit home until his teammates report for preseason without him. “Even this year, I felt amazing, I don’t think I missed that much time [to injuries]. But each day, it started to wear. It's not, ‘Oh, I’m just sore in my hamstrings.’

“It's weird, it's like my toes now, my feet, my ankles. Those are getting so sore. Getting out of bed, that was a thing. I can still do it, but I think they’re going back to three subs next year; there's just so many other things that I think that this is the right time.”

So he’ll open a new chapter, albeit still in Quakes blue and black, helping connect the locker room to the front office, guiding the likes of Cade Cowell and Benji Kikanovic and the rising waves of young talent from San Jose’s academy. The potential scope of their futures are the what-ifs that matter now, not that late bloom, the frustrating stat line of just seven career playoff games or even that infamous Belgium miss.

Wondo is serene about the path he walked, and for good reason. It led him to the mountaintop.

“I love everything that came about. There were no regrets. You know, people always wonder, ‘if I could go to Europe...’” he said, acknowledging the validity of comparable choices made by others in his field.

“But I got to play for my hometown. I got to raise my kids here. No regrets, at all. I love that.”