Something funny happened on Wednesday night during what has quickly turned into Chris Wondolowski’s assault on Roy Lassiter’s 16-year-old scoring record: Destiny threw him a curveball.
Wondo’s 18th goal of the season – which would have put him on pace to break Lassiter’s longstanding single-season record by mid-October – was waved off by referee Kevin Stott, who ruled that Justin Morrow had encroached on the box as the San Jose Earthquakes star took his spot kick.
And when Wondo stepped up for the retake, FC Dallas’ Kevin Hartman stoned him. Goal No. 18 was erased.
Just like that, Lassiter’s incredible mark of 27 goals set in Major League Soccer’s inaugural season seemed that much further away.
“No, not yet,” Wondolowski said when asked if the record is somewhere in the back of his mind. “Ten [goals] away, that’s a ways away. When it gets to two or three, four or five, maybe. Ten’s a whole season right there.”
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Nearly 430 miles south-southeast in Temecula, Calif., Lassiter understands completely. He’s sitting back and watching Wondo learn what countless MLS goalscorers since his magical 1996 season have: History is a tough, tough nut to crack.
“It is a beat-down, really,” Lassiter explained to MLSsoccer.com, “of trying to make it through an entire league season and trying to be productive and successful and, at same time, trying to help your team win a championship.”
That’s exactly what Wondo is fighting. His Quakes are atop the league right now, in pole position for the Supporters’ Shield. And much of their success has come through the Golden Boots of their star striker. It may have been 16 years ago, but Lassiter went through a similar challenge as he set the bar while helping his Tampa Bay Mutiny finish with the best regular-season record.
But although Lassiter has seen all of the would-be challengers of his record come and go – Stern John, Mamadou Diallo, Taylor Twellman, Carlos Ruiz, the list goes on – there’s one big difference when it comes to Wondolowski.
Lassiter is rooting for him. And rooting for him hard.
“I’m hoping he gets this because I just feel all records are meant to be broken,” said Lassiter, now a youth director at Albion SC in San Diego. “It’s been a long, long time. That goes to show you how hard it is.”
What Lassiter loves in particular about Wondo is his from-out-of-nowhere story, a former developmental-contract player who toiled in the Reserve League, waiting for his chance. Since the former Chico State star had his breakthrough 2010 season, Lassiter has marveled at his sniper’s nose for goal and, by all accounts, his humble, everyman attitude.
“People ask me if I think I got the glory and the attention I should have,” Lassiter said of his record-setting campaign. “I look back and say, ‘Hey, I helped this league get to where it is today. I set the mark where kids like Wondo can come through and go for such a goal.’”
But Lassiter is also very aware of what a rare standard he set back in 1996, scoring goals at a rate that hasn’t been replicated over an entire season since.
“I look back at that time and I’m thrown back at how many I did score,” he admitted. “I looked at [a highlight reel MLS] sent me and I thought, ‘Wow, I couldn’t do that again.’”
And yet Wondo is still on pace. Despite his goalless evening on Wednesday, he remains on track to catch Lassiter. Ten goals in 13 games will get it done; 11 will put him alone atop the mountain.
He’ll need a good bit of luck – games in which an opponent like Real Salt Lake go down a man, for instance, and a normally stalwart defender like Jámison Olave has one of his worst games.
He’ll need a bit of help – the perfect through-balls from teammates, the yeoman’s work in the box from Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart to draw defenders.
He’ll need a gift or two, an occasional penalty kick he can use to pad his total.
He’ll need to shake off the cruel tricks destiny plays on him, like it did Wednesday night.
But above all, he’ll need the mindset to separate his own objectives from that of his team’s needs.
“If his mind is refocused less on the record and more on helping his team win games, he’ll get the goals he needs,” said Lassiter. “It’ll probably be a little both, though, and that’s going to be the mind game he’s going to have to deal with.”
At the end of it all, Lassiter still thinks it’s doable. In fact, he thinks it’s inevitable. And in perhaps the most heartstring-tugging twist, he desperately wants to be in the building when it happens.
“That would be awesome,” said Wondolowski, when informed of Rocket Roy’s wish. “I’m a huge fan of his. I’d love to do it in his presence if that happens.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.