SAN JOSE, Calif. – At the age of 35, San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski is encountering something he hasn’t gone through since his MLS rookie season of 2005: attending training camp with a coach he hadn’t previously known.
“I’m excited,” Wondolowski told reporters last week as the Quakes opened their first training camp under new coach Mikael Stahre. “I’m excited for a new test, a new chapter. … I was actually telling my wife, I was a little bit nervous for a beep test. That was the first time ever, coming in today. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Expectations haven't historically been a problem for Wondolowski, who has been exceeding them for years while becoming San Jose’s leading scorer and moving to within a dozen goals of eclipsing Landon Donovan’s all-time MLS mark of 145.
Yet the fact that Stahre – a veteran of Sweden, Greece and China, who’s making his debut on this continent – is coming in with a blank slate gave even the Quakes’ long-time captain a bit of pause.
“One thing’s for sure: Nothing’s for [certain],” Wondolowski said. “Whether it’s myself or whoever, there’s no spot that’s really taken for granted. Everyone has to earn their stripes. … I think that starts from day one. I think that’s a mentality.”
Wondolowski went out and proved it last Wednesday, the Quakes’ second official day of practice. Officially crowned as San Jose’s oldest player with the winter departure of stalwart defender Victor Bernardez, Wondolowski nevertheless finished third in San Jose’s beep test, trailing only 22-year-old Tommy Thompson and indefatigable winger Shea Salinas, who has described himself as “a really good runner and an OK soccer player.”
Although Wondolowski’s superb instincts for moving off the ball and into space have earned him comparisons to Jedi masters of the Star Wars universe, he a few more prosaic tricks up his sleeve – including a wellspring of stamina. Second-year midfielder Jackson Yueill, who is nearly 15 full years younger than Wondolowski, was among many teammates who were left behind.
“I was running next to him, so I was trying to keep up with him as best I could,” Yueill told MLSsoccer.com. “But no surprise there.”
From Wondolowski’s vantage point, the future bodes well for a Quakes team that broke a five-year playoff drought with last year’s sixth-place finish in the Western Conference, even after a first-round shellacking by Vancouver.
“A lot of the veteran guys, myself included, are really looking forward to this year,” Wondolowski said. “To be honest, in years past, we didn’t know what to expect. This year, I think we have a lot of high expectations for ourselves, where we want to be and what we want to do with the season.”
With new Designated Player Magnus Eriksson on board alongside other under-30 attackers such as Danny Hoesen, Jahmir Hyka and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, Wondolowski has perhaps his best supporting cast ever as an MLS player. That could mean more attention drawn elsewhere while Wondolowski slips into the cracks just long enough to send home another dagger.
“Obviously, he’s one of the biggest stars over here, good guy, captain of this team,” Stahre told reporters. “And of course he will be really involved.”
If so, talk will soon enough focus on Wondolowski’s chase of Donovan. Wondolowski has scored at least 12 goals in seven of his last eight MLS seasons, meaning that – barring a major injury – it’s almost likely that MLS will have a new face atop the all-time leaderboard at year’s end.
“I grew up idolizing Landon when he was [with] San Jose,” Wondolowski said. “I still think he’s the greatest American player to have played. Just to even get mentioned in the same breath, it’s pretty remarkable, pretty amazing and I still haven’t really gotten my head around that. So that’s pretty cool.”