Alan Gordon didn’t earn a starting nod in last Wednesday’s Major League Soccer (MLS) All-Star game. He didn’t open the scoring, either, in what would become a thrilling 3-2 victory for the MLS' best over Chelsea, last season's European Champions.
Those distinctions went to Gordon’s San Jose Earthquakes teammate, and fellow striker, Chris Wondolowski, a man who is poised to enjoy a potentially historic 2012 season.
Wondolowski’s 17 league goals, accrued in just 21 games for an astounding return rate of 0.81 goals per game, have captivated the hearts and minds of supporters around the league.
Many believe the late-blooming 29-year-old presents the most formidable threat to Roy Lassiter’s record of 27 goals in an MLS season, a feat the former Tampa Bay forward achieved in the league's inaugural 1996 campaign.
With 11 games remaining, the record is very much within "Wondo's" reach.
But the 'Quakes' captain will be the first to tell you that he'd never have reached this blooming stage in his career without the teammates who take the field with him for each game.
There's a reason that the San Jose starting eleven huddle up before, and often during, games. There's a reason the players often hug each other before kickoff. This is a tight-knit bunch. Wondolowski doesn't see himself as a star, and he wouldn't want you to think so, either. That would be a detriment to the group.
Enter Alan Gordon
Whereas Wondolowski's jet-fueled scoring has jettisoned him to the league lead, Alan Gordon actually holds the distinction of having scored the most goals per 90 minutes. (He has scored nine league goals in 823 minutes, almost one goal a game—a phenomenal rate.)
It's the sort of concentrated production that has become a calling card of "Gordo's" this season, during which he has been as responsible as anyone for the Earthquakes' terrific play.
He is one of the foremost examples of management's shrewd decisions in the past couple of years, where a series of prescient trades and insightful draft decisions have helped concoct a cocktail of dynamism on the field.
The youthful fullback tandem of Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow, both of whom were named All-Stars and started alongside Wondolowski at Philadelphia’s PPL Park—came through the MLS SuperDraft.
Others, like Gordon, arrived in San Jose through trades.
Brought in from Toronto FC last summer, one year after San Jose had moved for TFC midfielder Sam Cronin (who now starts in central midfield), Gordon saw his season derail just weeks after touching down for his second California stint in MLS (he began his career with LA Galaxy).
What was most maddening about the situation, to San Jose manager Frank Yallop's mind, was that the club was not made aware of an injury Gordon was carrying when the ink dried on the deal.
Though he had missed a substantial amount of the 2011 season dealing with a debilitating groin injury, since Gordon was acquired through a trade, per MLS logistics he did not undergo a physical before joining San Jose, as would have been the case if he had been a free agent.
After watching him play a full 90 minutes in his last match with Toronto ahead of the move, San Jose believed they were obtaining a fully fit striker.
But within a month of the deal's completion, Gordon was forced to undergo surgery to repair tears in an abdominal muscle and both hip adductors. What had initially been diagnosed as a three-to-five week recovery eventually ballooned into a season-ending injury.
Fully Fit, Gordon Has Begun to Flourish
Following San Jose's 2-1 win over FC Dallas this past July 18, a game in which Gordon scored his seventh league goal of the season, Yallop noted that, had it not been for a debatable decision in a June 20 match against Colorado Rapids, "Gordo" could have had one more.
It's safe to say that, with Yallop finally able to worry about his forward's goal return instead of X-ray results, things are going well.
The coach praises his forward for the dedicated approach he's shown during training this season, which Yallop believes has contributed to Gordon's production.
Gordon has been one of the foremost embodiments of the Earthquakes' "Goonies" moniker, a reference to their uncanny ability to fight back from deficits and obtain positive results in the final minutes of games.
(Before he scored against the Portland Timbers on July 3, all of Gordon's goals this season had come in a substitute role, and after the 75th minute to boot.)
He has taken the never-say-die philosophy, and the relentless effort that accompanies it, to heart.
"I’ve been working hard, and I've been coming off my injury and I continue to do that," Gordon said. "I’m not changing what I’ve been doing and it seems to be working.
"When you get minutes, you’re fitter. When you’re not getting the minutes, sometimes you’re sucking wind, and it affects your play. The more fit I get, it allows me to do more things on the field. In that sense I am feeling strong, and I hope it continues."
His fiery approach is tailor-made for a savior's role. After opening the scoring for San Jose against Dallas, Gordon bounded over the advertising boards surrounding the field at Buck Shaw Stadium and, in a fitting homage to the Lambeau Leap, vaulted onto the railing in front of the mass of supporters.
Using the railing's uppermost metal bar for support, Gordon rocked back and forth while unleashing a torrent of jubilant yells. The fans couldn't get enough.
It was a mirror-image of Gordon's saving grace in a May 19 road fixture with Columbus Crew. With the score 1-0 in Columbus' favor, and the seconds ticking away to the final whistle, Gordon collected a neat pass from Wondolowski in the penalty area and fired a left-footed shot.
In agonizing fashion, the side-footed drive caromed off the underside of the crossbar, and filtered back into play. But Gordon would not be denied. He raced onto the rebound and unleashed a spectacular acrobatic volley with his right foot that bounced past a thoroughly flummoxed collection of Crew and into the back of the net.
It's safe to say that Gordon's exuberance, and his stick-to-it-iveness, have infected the 'Quakes' locker room.
When one of his teammates was asked after a recent game against Chicago Fire, in which San Jose had trailed until stoppage time, whether he had ever despaired about the potential outcome, Gordon snapped to attention from his locker and barked his disapproval at the mere mention of possible disbelief.
Not one of this current band of 'Quakes would ever believe the game to be beyond their reach, said Gordon, eyes blazing. The mere possibility of that lack of faith baffled him. The teammate quickly voiced his concurrence.
With players like Gordon leading the way, it's easy to see why San Jose fans have quickly become acolytes of the Goonies approach.
A Key Contributor Who Does Much More than Score
Gordon was used primarily as a "joker" substitute to start the season, a term bestowed upon players who are particularly adept at making key contributions upon entering the game.
But after forward Steven Lenhart was ruled out from July 3 to July 31 (a span that encompassed five league games), as he recovered from lingering concussive symptoms stemming from a collision during a Portland Timbers match, Gordon got his chance at a starting role.
He pounced upon the opportunity, scoring four goals during that run of five encounters while providing San Jose with a priceless physical presence at the forward position.
After San Jose’s victory over Dallas, Wondolowski said that Gordon’s physical approach and hold-up play fits in seamlessly with the team’s offensive philosophy, and provided a priceless boon to the attack.
“When we clear the ball, (Gordon) possesses it, and we get two or three passes so we can get our guys going on the outside, and get our outside backs overlapping," Wondolowski said. "That’s a great thing to have."
The Earthquakes thrive when they’re able to get the ball to speedy wingers Shea Salinas and Marvin Chavez, who then attack the opposing team's fullbacks with a combination of pace and trickery as they race toward the endline.
With their forwards' height making for an obvious target, (Wondolowski, Lenhart and Gordon are all over six feet), crosses are frequently floated into the penalty area, where that trio has shown a predatory ability to finish chances.
That was certainly the case in the Dallas match.
Collecting the ball with a deadening first touch in the middle of the field, central midfielder Sam Cronin chanced a glance at goal.
Picking out Gordon, who said later that he motioned for a cross to be sent in, Cronin delivered an inch-perfect cross to the far post.
Gordon rose highest and powered his header down and into the back of the net for that ninth goal of the season. (He would get his 10th in San Jose’s 2-1 loss to Vancouver Whitecaps on July 22.)
With Lenhart Back, the Attack Becomes Even More Formidable
Lenhart made his return to the side on July 31, coming on as a substitute against the Chicago Fire and immediately joining Wondolowski and Gordon in the attack. The Quakes, down 1-0 at that juncture, quickly rose into the ascendancy with their three-headed Hydra of a forwarding ensemble.
The threesome's aerial prowess makes for a sort of pin-balling spectacle when crosses are played into the box. It's very rare that any of them lose an aerial duel, and they do a fantastic job of nodding on headers into the paths of teammates.
It was just that sort of play that proved to be San Jose's saving grace on the night, as Wondolowski deadened a header for Lenhart in the 98th minute. Collecting the pass at the top of the penalty area, Lenhart timed the bounce perfectly and unleashed a blistering volley that punctured what had been a valiant effort by the Chicago defense and keeper.
The match ended 1-1, and the Earthquakes, just as they've done all season, got a much-needed point—the kind that could prove so vital when the final standings are revealed.
"I just thank God,” Gordon told a collection of reporters, this coming after the Dallas encounter, but you feel certain he'd have said something similar after Chicago. “God’s been great to me and this team, and we’re just going to keep going and do the things we’ve been doing.
"Everybody's healthy, and there's someone right behind you ready to step in and do a job. Somebody's not going to be happy who's on the bench, but that's the sign of a good team."
Right now, the Earthquakes’ terrific play has fired them into first place in the Western Conference standings, where they stand at 44 points through 23 games.
It's a position that augurs well in their chase for the Supporter’s Shield, awarded to the team with the best overall record at the end of the season.
If they accomplish that feat, they'll owe their strike force, which has helped amass 45 goals—easily the most prolific output in MLS (LA Galaxy sit in second with 39), in a big way.
Gordon, whose fearless approach and relentless desire have contributed to many more goals than the ones he's actually managed to score himself, should be applauded for his production alongside Wondolowski and Lenhart.
Yallop certainly realizes the pivotal role he's played, saying that San Jose "missed" him last season when he went down to injury.
The seasoned coach has frequently made mention of his team's ability to win even when Wondolowski fails to find the back of the net. Gordon is a big reason for that.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes used in this article were recorded on-site at San Jose Earthquakes games.