Chris Wondolowski knows he’s 38. He knows that 38-year-old strikers aren’t supposed to bag braces off the bench on a Friday night. But he doesn’t care. We know that he doesn’t care because that’s exactly what he did in the San Jose's 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake this past week. He went out and scored a brace in a four-minute span.
Scoring goals is not a new thing for Wondo. Before Friday night, he’d already tallied an MLS record 166 goals. Besides adding two more and shooting a pair of arrows directly into the hearts of RSL fans, Wondo’s latest scoring exploits gave me an excuse to go back and watch every single step he took during his substitute appearance using Second Spectrum’s tactical camera angle. All the feints. Each double move. Every off-ball movement. And both goals.
Welcome, everyone, to The Wondo Chronicles.
It’s the 72nd minute. San Jose are down 1-0 and Matias Almeyda has just made the substitution that all 26 other MLS coaches dream of making: Chris Wondolowski on, Tanner Beason off. Maybe all 26 other MLS coaches don’t dream of taking Tanner Beason off the field, but they certainly dream about putting Wondo on in a late-game situation.
As San Jose right back Luciano Abecasis takes a throw-in, Wondo gets on the field and immediately starts looking for space.
He starts high, comes a little bit deeper and then looks for a spot between the lines. The referee determines that Abecasis’ throw-in was a foul throw-in and the Earthquakes lose the ball. But Wondo is moving. He’s looking for space. And he’s ready to cause trouble.
Down a goal, San Jose are controlling possession, trying to push forward and break RSL’s defensive block. Wondo, playing alongside Andres Rios, settles into a relatively free role when his team has the ball. He’s dropping between the lines to find pockets of space and sucking defenders in to create space for others.
RSL don’t know it, but all this movement in deeper areas is a masquerade. It’s a ruse to lull them into a false sense of security before Wondo starts to attack the penalty box. (Actually, this is all very useful and important movement to help the Quakes progress the ball, but it’s a means to an end – and that end means runs into the box.)
Three minutes after coming off the bench, Wondo has his first chance to draw blood. On the back of his clever positioning, San Jose move the ball down the left wing and into the final third.
With Salinas on the ball out wide, Wondo begins his approach, crossing the edge of the 18-yard box and passing the center circle before finding a spot to his liking just outside of the six-yard box. What’s so special about Wondo’s chosen spot? It’s directly between two defenders. To maximize the opponent's confusion when he arrives in the box, Wondo looks for gaps between defenders. In this case, it's a gap between Donny Toia and Justen Glad.
If you pick spots between two defenders, it’s hard for a single opponent to disrupt your movement in the box. And Wondo doesn’t like to be disrupted.
You wanna know something Wondo does like? Rebounds. If he decided against playing professional soccer, Wondo’s claim to fame could’ve been “Being the best rebounder in NBA history under 6-foot-7 other than Charles Barkley.”
While this is the first-ever edition of The Wondo Chronicles, at least to my knowledge, if there had been previous editions, Wondo’s constant pursuit of loose balls in the box would’ve been a major theme. He doesn’t give up on plays. When Cristian Espinoza shoots from outside the box, there’s a chance to snag a rebound - which is what Wondo tries to do in the clip in the previous section, but David Ochoa won't spill the ball.
The Quakes are still trying to get on the board in the 79th minute when Abecasis crosses the ball into Carlos Fierro. Fierro’s header ends up going over the bar, but Wondo is ready. He’s lurking, taking that extra step towards goal just in case Ochoa parries the ball back into the mixer.
After crashing the goal for a rebound twice and coming up empty both times, I would start to wonder whether my extra work was worth it. But not Wondo. Wondo doesn’t wonder. Wondo knows. He knows that his rebounding efforts are worth it. And he’s right.
It’s the 82nd minute. Wondo enters the box and isolates Glad. He makes three moves but doesn’t create much separation until Salinas’ cross finds Fierro near the penalty spot and Glad has to step to deal with the newfound threat. As Glad leaves Fierro, Wondo knows it’s about to be rebound time. Fierro shoots, Ochoa parries right to Wondo and Wondo scores an easy goal.
Wondo loves rebounds. It’s 1-1.
Apparently unwilling (or unable) to be content with just one goal, Wondo continues to involve himself in San Jose attacks and participates in some defensive work in the game’s closing moments. He’s pushing for a second.
In the 87th minute, the second comes. It’s a cross from Fierro on the right wing. Before the cross, Wondo gets in the box and stays away from RSL’s defenders. Wondo doesn’t like to be disrupted, remember? He likes his space. Wondo stays away from RSL’s defenders until Fierro hits the cross, at which point he crashes the gap between Glad and Andrew Brody and rises up for the headed finish. It’s 2-1.
The patience, the timing, the understanding of space, the finish to cap off a late-game comeback that he started. It’s all peak Wondo. With two goals on five shots so far this year, the best shot quality in MLS (0.298 xG per shot, according to Second Spectrum) and an unbreakable rebounding habit, Wondo continues to be one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in MLS.
Who knows, this season may yet call for another edition of The Wondo Chronicles.