ORLANDO, Fla. — Strikers are supposed to be selfish by nature, but Chris Wondolowski has always been a little different.
With his easy California smile and laugh off the field contrasting a steely gaze and intense gum-chewing on it, Wondolowski's decade of excellence continued in 2019.
He recently became the first player in league history to score double-digit goals in 10 consecutive seasons, adding yet another accolade to the 36-year-old's resume saturated with them. And he'll look for more when the San Jose Earthquakes meet LAFC Wednesday night (10:30 pm ET | UniMas, Twitter, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) as part of Heineken Rivalry Week.
Earlier this season, Wondolowski became the league's all-time leading scorer when his four-goal outburst against Chicago was enough to tie, break and extend his new record. With the striker long on the chase, #WondoWatch had been a constant storyline dating back to the end of last season.
“I’d like to say nothing’s changed, but it’s just more freedom now," Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com last month before making his fifth All-Star appearance. "I’m not thinking about it. It was always the elephant in the room, it was the main question I got. Now I can just worry about winning. It’s nice to have freedom.”
Wait. Wondolowski becomes the all-time leading scorer, as diamond a record as exists in this league, and his first thought was relief it was all just going away?
That's always been Wondo. Last season, he often said he hoped to get the record quickly just to be done with the questions. Mild convenience rather than career ambition, declining the spotlight rather than absorbing the long-overdue attention after a historic career that almost didn't happen. All genuine, all the time.
“It’s slowly sinking in now, little things happen," Wondolowski admitted. "It’s crazy to get a couple messages from people I idolized. Just to be mentioned in a record book — it’s mindboggling. It’s cool.”
After the Quakes finished bottom of MLS in 2018, Wondo has enoyed the game more this season under new head coach Matias Almeyda and returned to vintage form. Still, it was a little bit scary for the veteran this winter.
“I had to make sure I could do it. I had a lot of questions about myself, a little self-doubt," Wondolowski said. "Not sure if I could hang with the new style during the offseason, you know, getting older. There’s a new coach, we were dead last, we weren’t doing the right things evidentially. With Almeyda, he said if you do these things, press in these certain ways, you will have success. Now that we’re seeing it.”
After getting off to a winless start, the Quakes have risen to sixth place in a crowded Western Conference playoff picture.
“The doubts always linger back there," Wondolowski admitted. "I felt I could play at a high level, but, you know, you got to make sure you carry your weight as well. From day one, (Almeyda has been) so charismatic. He’s a true leader. Once he told me I could do it I was like wow, I’m in."
Almeyda's man-management has been as key as his tactics, with the team fully embracing a combative style that requires the Quakes to be among MLS' fittest teams.
“He’s made it fun, it’s reignited a fire," Wondolowski said." He wants you to work hard but enjoy it, enjoy the little things that this game has brought to you. Something he does so well is to be able to relate the game to life, with values and morals. It’s cool to see the way he talks about the game and the love for it. ‘Go enjoy it, listen to music, you guys are family in the locker room.’ We’ve all bought in.”
The Argentine has created a familial atmosphere in the Quakes locker room and beyond.
“He’s frustrated with not being able to speak English very well, because he loves talking to people," Wondolowski said. "One of the coolest things is we’ll have a team BBQ, and he’s like I’m cooking for you guys. He’s behind the grill, it’s awesome.”
That humility suits Wondolowski perfectly.
After he broke Landon Donovan's MLS goals record, the United States legend reached out to congratulate Wondo and share a few words. In true Wondo fashion, he deflected the spotlight back to his old teammate.
“It meant a lot," Wondolowski said. "He was one of my idols growing up when he was on the Quakes, going to his games. Then being a teammate with him on the national team, he was a great mentor. He was awesome. He took me under his wing, showed me the ropes, showing that it’s crazy to be him. Going out to dinner with him — it’s just nuts! Oh my gosh, I don’t want that, I don’t want to be recognized, I do too many dumb things to be recognized that much!”
As long as he's around MLS circles, he's sure to be recognized.