It’s an awkward time for Chris Wondolowski.
On a team level, Wondolowski and the San Jose Earthquakes are working their way through the dregs of a miserable season. The last-place Quakes are 4-19-8 heading into Saturday’s home match against the high-flying New York Red Bulls (10:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info). They’re working under their fourth head coach since the start of 2017, with a fifth likely on the way this winter. They’ve long been eliminated from playoff contention. At this point, the most they can hope for is to avoid one of the worst records in MLS history.
On a personal basis, Wondolowski is making a run at a different kind of history. Much different. The 35-year-old striker is just two goals away from tying Landon Donovan for the all-time MLS goal record of 145. It won’t be easy for him to pass his former US men’s national team teammate in 2018 with just three games remaining this season for San Jose, but the record is most certainly in play.
There’s collective disappointment. There’s individual excitement. Awkward, right?
“I wish it’d come a little bit more natural,” Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Friday. “I know that we’ve been struggling, so I don’t want pity starts or things that make it so I’m only trying to chase the record. I wish we were vying for playoffs and that was our main purpose right now. The chase is in some ways kind of like a second reminder that we really are doing bad.”
He’s not selling San Jose’s struggles short. The Quakes, who fired first-year head coach Mikael Stahre on Sept. 17, have won just twice since May 12. They’ve improved their play since interim boss Steve Ralston took over for Stahre, but the results haven’t followed. They’re currently mired in a five-game losing streak, their longest skid of the season. Wondolowski’s sense that San Jose haven’t had the necessary effort and desire this season has only made the defeats that much more difficult.
“It’s been extremely difficult, probably the most difficult year I’ve had,” Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Friday. “I’ve been on teams that didn’t have the talent but have had the work ethic and the desire. And this team has the talent and the players that should be a lot better. We should have a lot more points. And, to a man, we’ve not performed the way that we should’ve.”
Thankfully for Wondolowski, he has a bit of an escape hatch in the record chase. Though he’ll start fewer games this season than he has in any year since 2009, Wondolowski has remained productive in 2018, recording nine goals and five assists in 31 appearances and 21 starts. Ralston has put him in the starting XI in two straight weeks, and Wondolowski bagged a goal in San Jose’s 3-2 loss at Houston last Saturday. With the Quakes having little to play for the remainder of the season besides Wondolowski’s goal record, it’s hard to imagine him coming out of the lineup in their last three matches.
He’s been conscious of the record being within reach since the end of last season, and, now that the one-time MLS afterthought is just two goals away from tying Donovan, the reality of it all is starting to set in.
“It’s just absolutely crazy to me,” he said. “I think the best and coolest part is that I get to be mentioned with Landon Donovan, who I really do believe – and I know Clint [Dempsey] just retired and he should be talked about as one of the greatest as well – but, for me, Landon is the best U.S. soccer player of all-time, both domestically and also for the national team. It would be amazing. I’m truly still in awe about it and I hope it happens.”
Of course, there’s a chance Wondolowski will have to wait until 2019 to break Donovan’s record. And there’s a chance, however remote, that the Bay Area native might not be in San Jose next season. His contract isn’t guaranteed for 2019, though the Quakes hold an option to extend his deal. He wants to “play at least one more year” before retiring and has spoken with San Jose about his future, and indicated he fully expects the club to pick up his option.
With a new coach potentially on the way, however, there is a possibility that the Quakes could go in a different direction. Wondolowski, who called Ralston “a great head coach” and said he should be in the running for San Jose’s full-time job, acknowledged that, though he made it clear that he wants his ending to be with the Quakes, no matter how difficult this year has been.
“I want to be with the Quakes,” he said. “I love it here. The fanbase is absolutely amazing. They’re family. I’m literally one of them, grew up a fan of the Earthquakes and the Clash, so it’s special. I do just love it here.”