Stories of the Year, No. 2: Wondolowski chases history

As the Best of 2012 series continues on, we're counting down the 12 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We'll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 19 until Dec. 30, when we unveil what our panel of 20 editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2012.

Next up: Wondo's World. San Jose Earthquakes star Chris Wondolowski not only won the league MVP in 2012, but also tied one of its most storied marks first set by Roy Lassiter in 1996. Earthquakes beat writer Geoff Lepper examines Wondo's work ethic and how it defined his dogged pursuit of the single-season scoring record.

When San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski was conducting a conference call with Bay Area reporters to mark his claiming of the 2012 MLS Most Valuable Player award, a team staffer jokingly asked if the 29-year-old had been an MVP during his AYSO youth soccer days.

“I don’t think so,” Wondolowski said. “I definitely got a participation trophy. That’s the only one I kept, though.”

It was a throwaway punch line in the midst of a whirlwind medi­a tour, but it resonated simply because it summed up so much of what Wondolowski represented while he chased down Roy Lassiter to forge a first-place tie atop the league’s all-time single-season scoring charts with 27 goals.

Wondolowski can’t run like Marvin Chávez, can’t blast a ball like Víctor Bernárdez, doesn’t have the size of Alan Gordon and lacks the wild-bull aggression of Steven Lenhart. But nobody, on the Quakes or any other club in MLS, will outwork Wondolowski.

Put it this way: Nobody will participate more tirelessly than the Quakes star.

by Alan Gordon

Chris Wondolowski ties the record

I was upset at the media during the middle of the season, because I thought they jinxed him. He was on fire and tearing through it, and he probably would have scored 40 goals, you know? And then the media made a big deal about it and he went on an eight-game drought, and he was not scoring. I was just wondering, "What did they just do to this guy?" At that point I didn’t think he was going to break it, I was just hoping he would get back in form for the playoffs. And lo and behold, the guy started rattling them off again. The dude is clutch.

I wasn’t there because I was injured, but I was nervous just watching on TV at home. I was nervous for him. I told [Steven Lenhart], "Make sure you go down in the box, man." Not diving, just to get Wondo a PK. And that was how it played out.

When Wondo scored his 27th goal to tie the record, that really special for all of us, not just him. We all really love Wondo and we’re happy for success, and it was really cool to be part of that.

The 2010 Golden Boot winner (and 2011 co-league leader) opened with 11 goals in 10 matches, and the talk of replacing Lassiter — who set his mark with the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 1996, MLS’ inaugural season — heated up in earnest once Wondolowski got to 17 with a hat trick against shorthanded Real Salt Lake on July 14.

When Wondolowski managed just one goal, off a penalty kick in Toronto on Aug. 18, in San Jose’s next seven matches, the chase seemed stalled in its tracks. The Bay Area native still needed nine goals to match Lassiter’s total with just seven games left on the schedule, yet he batted back questions about the idea of a slump by pointing to the Quakes’ record: “We’ve won three of our last four games. It’s hard to be in a slump when you’re winning.”

A stoppage-time goal in an international friendly against Mexican side San Luis FC on Sept. 6 gave a little hint that Wondolowski — who finished the schedule on almighty tears to pass Edson Buddle in 2010 and tie Dwayne De Rosario in 2011 — was back on the scent. A strike against Chivas USA on Sept. 15, followed by a brace off the bench — the only regular-season match for which Wondolowski was available but didn’t start, as coach Frank Yallop tried to give him a boost — vs. Portland four days later proved it.

No. 22 came in Seattle on Sept. 22, and then Wondolowski delivered his second hat trick of the season at Colorado on Oct. 6, scoring in his usual multitude of ways; chesting one pass into the net, tallying a second on a deflected shot and finding the third thanks to a nifty drag-and-turn move inside the Rapids’ penalty area. That performance left him on 25 goals, vaulting him past Taylor Twellman (23 in 2002), Raúl Díaz Arce (23 in 1996) and Carlos Ruiz (24 in 2002) and into fourth place on the league’s all-time list. It also gave Wondolowski sole ownership of the club’s career scoring mark, pushing Ronald Cerritos — a former San Jose legend whom Wondolowski watched growing up — down one spot.

Wondolowski needed two goals in as many matches to tie the record, three to break it, and the eyes of the MLS world were all on him as San Jose hosted LA Galaxy on Oct. 21 in their final home match of the year — which also was the day the club officially broke ground on its new soccer-specific stadium. With league commissioner Don Garber and Lassiter himself on hand, Wondolowski clanged balls off the woodwork twice early in the second half, but broke through in the 73rd minute, diving low to head home a Chávez corner kick and bag No. 26.

Lassiter was in the house at JELD-WEN Field on Oct. 27 when the Quakes — already assured of the Supporters’ Shield — came to Portland looking unabashedly to get Wondolowski a record-breaking brace. The first tally came early, Wondolowski going low and left with a 24th-minute penalty kick to beat Donovan Ricketts and join Lassiter on hallowed ground. But the second eluded Wondolowski, even as he kept grinding away, trying desperately to nick one more.

In the end, it wasn’t to be, leaving folks to wonder about what would have happened had Wondolowski converted some of those near-misses — or if teammate Justin Morrow hadn’t been called for encroachment on Wondolowski’s successful PK try against FC Dallas on July 18, giving Kevin Hartman an opportunity to save the follow-up attempt.

Wondolowski, though, took a positive outlook, especially when a reporter mentioned that Lassiter had said he found it impossible to repeat his success after 1996 because he was always chasing his own previous accomplishments.

“The good news is, I can still say I’m chasing Roy Lassiter,” Wondolowski said. “I don’t necessarily have to chase myself.”