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Making MLS history: Celebrating Chris Wondolowski’s epic game of goals

SAN JOSE, Calif. — If was not a matter of if, but when, and everyone in and around the San Jose Earthquakes couldn’t be happier. On a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon at Avaya Stadium, Chris Wondolowski scored four goals to take his MLS career total to 148, eclipsing Landon Donovan’s all-time record and becoming the league’s top goal scorer ever.

Back in October of last season, with Wondolowski one goal away from tying the record and the team well out of the MLS Cup playoffs chase, his teammates began searching for their captain on almost every possession in the attacking third. They were determined to get him the record, but it didn’t happen, and Wondo had to contemplate his chase of history for the entire offseason.

The start of the 2019 campaign, his 14th in MLS, saw Wondolowski return to his pursuit of those elusive record setting goals. He started the first four games of the season, getting some good chances along the way, but the Earthquakes suffered four brutal loses. Wondo was benched for game five, and the team earned its first win of the season. He was left out of the starting lineup for the next seven games.

But mirroring the early years of his career, Wondolowski kept battling away in training, making sure Matias Almeyda and his coaching staff wouldn’t forget what he could bring to the team, keeping fit and alert and ready for whatever opportunity he might get on the field of play. And when starting forward Danny Hoesen was deemed unfit to play against the Chicago Fire on Saturday, Wondo was ready when his name was called.

“I’m always ready, always ready to go,” Wondolowski shared. “I know my role. I know my job in that sense. It was fun. I didn’t necessarily think that four goals were coming but driving in I had a special feeling. I really thought that today could have been the day.”

It was Hall of Fame Day on Saturday, and some of Wondolowski’s former teammates and coaches were in the house to witness his accomplishment. On the field, there was Shea Salinas, Wondo’s longest serving teammate, and Tommy Thompson, who joined him on the Earthquakes back in the team’s Buck Shaw days. Both enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate with the Quakes long-time leader.

“He is the perfect example of what this club needs,” Thompson said. “He’s relentless, and regardless of whether or not he’s starting, he has the same exact attitude in every training session. He always wants to win, and it’s contagious. It pushes everybody on this team to be their best and to maximize their potential.”

“Yeah, Wondolowski has been our captain for a long time,” Salinas added. “He’s such a sacrificial, humble guy. He does whatever’s best for the team, no matter if that benefits him or not. So he’s just an impressive guy. I’ve loved following him, and I’ve loved being his teammate. He’s going to continue to be our captain for a long time.”

And even the newest members of the Quakes family were pleased to see Wondolowski break the record. Almeyda, who had improbably predicted Wondo would score four goals on the day, had a celebrated career of his own, but he joked that while his career highlights video might take five minutes to watch, Wondolowski’s will, when it’s all said and done, take closer to an hour and a half.

“I felt privileged to be able to coach a player that was close to setting an important record,” Almeyda said, “and to have accomplished it in the way he did. I think he deserves it; he’s a great professional, and a great team member. The merit is his and we are all happy to enjoy the record he just set.”

Wondolowski’s relentless march on history began back in 2005, when he was selected in the fourth round of the MLS Supplemental Draft by the Earthquakes. He made two appearances his rookie season, playing 5 minutes total, the only mark on his statline a single yellow card. That offseason, he was transported to Houston, where the Quakes were relocated and renamed the Dynamo in 2007.

The next three-plus seasons in Texas saw Wondolowski shine bright in the old Reserve League, but barely register on the MLS level, netting four times in 37 appearances. The Dynamo were MLS champions in 2007 and 2008, and the offense was lead by all-stars Brian Ching and Dwayne De Rosario. There was simply no room in the lineup for the young Wondolowski, and he contemplated retiring from the game that brought him so much joy.

And then fate dealt him a winning hand, though he couldn’t have known it at the time. Wondolowski was traded back to San Jose midway through the 2009 campaign, back to the Bay Area and friends and family. He started to get some regular minutes with the Earthquakes, starting eight games and scoring three goals before an injury cut short his season. It was another setback, but the belief was reborn.

The 2010 season is when it all came together, though few realize he began the campaign back on the bench, the third-string forward for Frank Yallop’s Quakes. Injuries to the starters opened the door for Wondolowski, and when presented the opportunity, he never looked back. Wondo scored goals in his first four starts, en route to a season in which he netted 18 times and captured the league’s Golden Boot and was named to the MLS Best XI. He was anonymous no more.

In subsequent seasons, Wondolowski continued to build on his accomplishments. 2011 saw the first of four selections to the MLS All-Star game, and he made it on the MLS Best XI for the second time. 2012 marked the pinnacle of his prowess, as his record-setting 27 goals scored earned him another Golden Boot and the league’s MVP award. The Quakes were Supporters’ Shield winners that season as well, punctuating his achievements.

But the greatest individual accomplishment Wondolowski attained took many seasons to reach — an MLS record nine straight seasons, and counting, with double-digit goals. No other player in league history has done so in more than five straight. Wondo has often talked about that streak of success ranking as more important to him personally than the goal-scoring record he now finally holds, and his teammates view such contributions with the highest regard.

“It is a culmination of a lot of hard work from Wondo,” Salinas said. “We’ve been teammates the longest, and it’s just an honor to be a part of what he’s done. He’s an incredible person, an incredible teammate, and an incredible goalscorer, so it’s been cool to be a part of it.”

Thompson agreed, having watched Wondolowski play as a kid and then sharing the field with him starting in 2014. That Wondo would break the record on a day he scored four goals, something he had never done in his career, made it even more impressive.

“We all knew it was coming, it was just a matter of time,” Thompson said. “He’s an incredible player, and he’s proven it all throughout his career. There have been a lot of people who have doubted him, but he continued to show what he could do. So we knew at some point this season he was going to have a game like this, and I’m excited it was today, because it was fun to watch.”

No one on the Earthquakes is more intense before games, as Wondolowski’s rituals are well documented. He had not scored in 12 straight appearances, the longest such dry streak in his career, but the support of those around him gave him confidence that the record setting goals would come.

“It’s looming just cause it’s there, but to be honest this year has been so much fun,” Wondolowski said. “I think that this coaching staff and this locker room have reignited that passion and a love for the game and I’m just enjoying it out there. I’m going out there not to score goals, I’m going out there because it’s fun.”

The record tying goal was Wondolowski exemplified, as he connected with Salinas to redirect his pass into the back of the net. It was the 14th time Salinas had assisted Wondo, a remarkable achievement when you consider that only 10 other teammate combos have connected for more in MLS history.

“We’ve played together for a very long time,” Salinas said. “Practice, most time when we’re scrimmaging or playing small-side games, we’re on the same team, so I know he likes to pull off that defender’s back shoulder. Looking for him is usually a good way to get an assist.”

“When he scored off of Shea’s pass, it was a special moment, because they have played together for so long,” Thompson added. “I was really happy for them too. And when he broke the record, you could see how excited everyone on the team was, because we knew it was coming.”

Goal number 146, the record breaking goal, was almost as absurd as it was historic. A lofted ball into the box by Cristian Espinoza was tracked down by goalkeeper David Ousted, but he inexplicably let the ball slip from his hands and bounce to the ground. Wondolowski, like he had hundreds of times before was right at the goalkeeper’s feet, and he poked the ball into the goal, setting off celebrations throughout Avaya Stadium.

“I love visualization, I love going through different things,” Wondolowski said. “I always pictured hitting a 30-yard blast going upper 90, didn’t really picture the goalkeeper dropping it and tapping it in, but I’ll take it. Honestly, I’m just having fun right now. It’s kind of rejuvenated, reignited this passion and I’m really having fun right now.”

The fun spilled over the endline, as the first teammates he encountered were the bench players, all warming up in case they got the call to take the field. Wondolowski had been one of those players for the past many weeks, so he did not hesitate to join them in an enthusiastic group hug and jump-around.

“I was able to celebrate it with the team, the subs right there,” Wondolowski said. “Being a part of them the last few games, we all know how important the goal is and everyone is celebrating the goal the exact same. The coaching staff, you see how much joy they have on the sideline. Again, just to be right there.”

“He can do just about everything,” Thompson added. “He has an amazing attitude and that’s what happens when you continue to show up, and you continue to work hard, you do amazing things. And for him to be the all-time MLS goal scorer now is something to treasure. He deserves it more than anybody.”

Wondolowski didn’t stop there, however, scoring two more goals as part of the Earthquakes dismantling of the Chicago Fire. All four goals were one-touch shots — no dribbles, no cut-backs, nothing fancy at all — as Wondo set the MLS goal-scoring record the same way he’s been scoring goals since 2006. Almeyda substituted Wondolowski off just as the game drifted into stoppage time, allowing the crowd to roar it’s appreciation for the greatest player ever to wear the Black and Blue of the San Jose Earthquakes.

After the final whistle and the celebratory hugs and high fives for a fourth straight victory at home, Wondolowski made his way to the center circle, where he was presented with a plaque honoring his momentous day. He was lifted into air by all his teammates, and his smile was wider than at any point in his 14 year career.

Back on terra firma, he turned to the scoreboard jumbo screen to watch the video tributes in his honor, soaking it all in. When the last message played, he slowly made his way off the field and back to the locker room, accepting the well-wishes of fans and staff alike, his trademark humbleness on full display. It was a day that was a long time coming, but he enjoyed every single moment of it.

“It is a relief now, I’m not going to lie,” Wondolowski said. “It’s nice to have it done but it’s still so surreal that I get a message from Landon Donovan, that he even knows my name is crazy and boggles my mind. To see that I got some messages after the game on the video board and those guys know my name and talking to me and congratulating me, it’s amazing. It’s still surreal. It still hasn’t sunk in and I’m not sure when it will or if it will until I’m even more gray and a lot older. But it’s pretty cool.”

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