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Chris Wondolowski excited for challenge of becoming MLS scoring champion

Oct 22, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Valeri Kazaishvili (11) and forward Chris Wondolowski (8) celebrate their win over Minnesota United in the second half at Avaya Stadium. (John Hefti/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — For eight consecutive seasons, Chris Wondolowski has scored in double-digits for the San Jose Earthquakes — a feat never before accomplished in the short history of Major League Soccer.

But he’s more than just the answer to a trivia question. By the end of the 2018 MLS campaign, Wondolowski, 35, is likely to become the league’s most prolific goal scorer ever. With 134 career goals to his name, he needs only a dozen more to surpass Landon Donovan as the all-time MLS scoring champion.

Not bad for a player who 10 years ago, while languishing in the MLS Reserve League, wasn’t even sure if he had a future in soccer.

“Not at all, to be honest,” Wondolowski told Pro Soccer USA. “It’s been so exciting, a whirlwind for me, and I’m just happy to still be playing. I remember thinking back then that if I could make it to age 30, I’d have a solid career. That was the goal, and now I am going to keep going until the wheels fall off because I am having too much fun.”

Originally drafted by the Earthquakes in 2005, Wondolowski was well down the depth chart as a rookie, especially with proven veterans like Brian Ching, Dwayne De Rosario and Alejandro Moreno on the roster. When the team was relocated to Houston and became the Dynamo, the Bay Area native followed, but his status as a bench player continued.

His scoring acumen was not a secret in Houston, though few ever got to witness it. As part of the Dynamo reserves — a team that also included Vancouver Whitecaps forward Kei Kamara, who himself scored his 100th career MLS goal last weekend — Wondolowski was nearly unstoppable. But first-team minutes came sparingly, and in three-plus years in Texas, he scored only four goals.

Not ready to quit on his dream of becoming an MLS starter, but needing a new environment in which to blossom, Wondolowski was traded back to a familiar locale in 2009, rejoining the new Earthquakes in San Jose. He scored three goals that summer as a part-time starter before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. It was not the homecoming he’d hoped for.

Wondolowski suited up for his sixth MLS season in 2010, back on the bench — but that would soon change. Injuries to San Jose’s starting strikers opened the door for the patient Wondolowski, and he delivered, scoring a goal in each of his first four starts. By campaign’s end, he’d tallied 18 times, setting an Earthquakes’ single-season record and winning the MLS Golden Boot.

A star was born.

Over the next seven seasons, Wondolowski kept at it. He matched the MLS single-season record of 27 goals in 2012 and averaged nearly 16 goals a year. He’s been San Jose’s annual leading scorer since cementing his place in the Quakes’ starting lineup back in 2010. And in all but one of those years, he earned the team’s Most Valuable Player award. He entered this season 11 goals behind Donovan on the all-time scoring list, and he has his sights set squarely on reaching No. 1.

“Definitely, it is a goal of mine this season,” Wondolowski said. “I always start the year with personal goals, and I want to attain them. But, to be honest, it will be more in my mind when I’m two, maybe three goals away. Still needing 12 right now, I am only focused on getting as many as I can.”

During Wondolowski’s eight-year run of excellence, the Earthquakes featured only two other players who reached double-digits in goals scored, Alan Gordon (13) and Steven Lenhart (10) back in 2012. Wondolowski’s teammates always looked to him first when goals were needed, and he delivered.

Entering the 2018 season, San Jose’s roster is stacked with a starting attacking corps that includes Danny Hoesen, Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, and Magnus Eriksson — all European imports with a nose for goal. For the first time in nearly a decade, Wondolowski’s status as the undisputed focal point of the Earthquakes offense is in question, and his quest to pass Donovan might be more challenging than in past years.

But the Quakes’ captain is not worried. He’s always valued team results over personal accomplishments, and his target for the 2018 season is a return trip to the MLS Cup playoffs.

 “There’s going to be plenty of opportunities for everyone,” Wondolowski said. “To be honest, I have Danny as my Golden Boot pick, and he’s going to put up a lot of goals. I have no problem sharing, and as long as we make the playoffs, I am good with that.”

Hoesen scored twice in the Earthquakes’ 3-2 victory over Minnesota United to open the season, with Vako adding the third on a Wondolowski assist. Defensive midfielder Florian Jungwirth, who joined the team last year, has a field-level view of the Quakes’ offense, and he is optimistic they all will be scoring goals all season long.

“The four guys up front, for me, are in the top-five attacking groups in the league,” Jungwirth told Pro Soccer USA. “That is our strength. For us other guys, our goal is to protect those four guys, keep a good shape, and give them the freedom to create chances and score goals.”

Jungwirth added that while players avoid speaking directly about Wondolowski’s chase of history, everyone is supportive of their captain’s quest and expect he’ll reach it sometime this season.

Wondolowski knows more than anyone that goals come primarily through a complete team effort.

“It’s going to help a lot,” Wondolowski said. “We’ve assembled a great team, from top to bottom, especially defensively. If we can stay organized there, we can exploit the serious talent we have in the attacking force to press up there and create some free-flowing play.”

While his best seasons came in his late twenties, Wondolowski hasn’t slowed down too much as a thirty-something. Over the past five years, he’s averaged 13.2 goals per season, which if done again in 2018 would put him safely past Donovan. And if he does assume the record, Wondolowski would be become the only player in MLS history to have 10-plus goals in nine consecutive seasons.

Following the season opener against Minnesota, Wondolowski marveled at the play of his teammates, and he shared his confidence that the new-look Quakes attack would be a handful for opponents throughout the league.

“I absolutely love it,” Wondolowski shared. “It’s amazing, and with such talented guys, it’s fun to play in there. It’s free-flowing, and we are able to move the ball with so much skill. The guys are able to make you look good.”

At 35, Wondolowski is by far the oldest member of the starting line-up, but his physical fitness has not diminished — he placed third in the team’s preseason beep-test — and having such a youthful group around him has brought new life into his game. Add in a new coaching staff, headlined by head coach Mikael Stahre, and the Quakes’ talisman is enjoying every moment.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” Wondolowski said. “Having a new coaching staff, it’s been a clean slate as everyone is working hard to impress. It’s a refreshing start right now, and I am enjoying myself a lot. I literally love coming out here and messing with these guys.”

Some of that fun might end up taking a back seat when he closes in on the record and MLS immortality, but Wondolowski is ready for the challenges, both on and off the field. 

“Yeah, it is definitely a weird dynamic answering the questions, but I want those questions because it will mean I’m getting close,” Wondolowski said with a laugh. “It’s better than not getting any questions, so keep them coming!”

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