San Jose Earthquakes Prove They Are Far More Than a "One-Man Team" in 2012
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He'd notched a goal via penalty against the Montreal Impact on Aug. 18, giving him the return rate of 18 goals in just 22 league games (one goal every 1.2 games).
It's the sort of proficiency, and consistency, normally resigned for the video-gaming realm, where games flash by and goals flow in.
For San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski, however, it was merely the latest goal-scoring exploit in a season that has been chock-full of them.
For a while this summer—particularly following a hat trick against Real Salt Lake on July 14, which had sprung his tally to 17 goals in 18 games, there had been serious talk of Wondolowski surpassing Roy Lassiter's league record of 27 goals scored.
Following that RSL match, one journalist even asked "Wondo," as he's affectionately known in the Bay Area, whether he would like to break the record with Lassiter in attendance.
Then, it had been a question readying entry into the "when" category, rather than "if." Nothing quite so captivates an American audience as a record chase in summer, after all.
But there is a dilemma in affixing such a powerful spotlight upon Wondo. As he'll be the first to tell you, this season—heck, his entire career—has never been about him.
It sounds too good to be true, as if one of those tried-and-true, but exceedingly lame, cliches we tend to plaster upon our athletes.
Too bad. Wondolowski's career is a reference point for being passed over, being told he's not good enough. When you've spent the first seasons of a professional career toiling in lower professional leagues and, at the best moments, in the MLS reserves, you're afforded a priceless sensibility.
Despite his rampant success in recent seasons—he is the recipient of the 2010 MLS Golden Boot, awarded to the top goalscorer (Wondo nabbed 19 that season, and lost out on the '11 award in a tie-breaker after scoring 16), and the 2011 Castrol Index Player of the Year, bestowed upon the top attacker based on a bevy of complex metrics (Wondo earned a 9.31 rating out of a possible 10, for what it's worth)—he has never grown too big for his britches.
He knows what it's like to be passed over, and his entire on-field modus operandi seems geared toward ensuring that he never loses sight of just how important a team can be. He's learned the importance of camaraderie.
This, all this, can go away so quickly—few people are more cognizant of life's fickleness than an athlete—thus, the importance of the team bond, which goes well beyond that of "brotherly," ratchets up in importance.
Wondolowski is the captain, and he often leads the team in huddles both before games and during their most frenzied moments.
It's a fitting visual verification for the metaphor that has molded this side. With decidedly less fanfare than the 2011 San Francisco 49ers, their successful Bay Area brethren, the Quakes are one of the best teams you're ever going to find.
A No-Frills Approach, a Record-Setting Pace
The clamoring, once so insistent, has dissipated somewhat in the past several weeks.
Wondolowski has scored just that lone goal in Montreal in his past five games, and with seven fixtures remaining, Lassiter's record is becoming an ever-fainter glimmer on the horizon.
His indifference to the record aside, Wondolowski has hardly diminished in terms of importance even as his goals have dried up and teams have geared their defenses toward stemming his prodigious threat.
San Jose's second-most-recent game, against the Colorado Rapids on Aug. 25, saw Wondolowski produce a bevy of deft flicks, pinpoint passes and superb control that, while they won’t end up on any highlight show, continue to augment his transformation into a complete footballer.
United States men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has certainly taken note, picking “Wondo” regularly for games in the past year. (Wondo was not called up for the upcoming pair of World Cup qualifiers.)
Like a shooter suffering through an off-night and concentrating instead on his defensive intensity, Wondolowski doesn’t let missed finishes undo him, and doesn't turn off his effort once the goals stop coming. It’s a testament to his fortitude, an added boon to the vaunted Quakes attack and a perfect argument in favor of his captaincy.
It has helped produce a San Jose attack that is not only looking like one of the most formidable in club history. It was perhaps most fitting that, as one record has passed seemingly out of reach (vis a vis Wondolowski's individual exploit), another has been eclipsed (vis a vis the team).
San Jose broke its record for most goals scored in a season this past Sunday against Chivas USA, their 4-0 victory over the struggling Western Conference side gave them a league-leading 56 strikes in 2012. That's one better than the '97 Quakes produced, and there are still seven games yet to be played before the playoffs.
Wondolowski failed to crack the scorers' list in that match as well, but he did notch his sixth assist of the season when he sent in a neat through ball for midfielder Simon Dawkins to smash past Chivas keeper Dan Kennedy to give San Jose a two-goal advantage.
It's that sort of spurious play from Wondo, who frequently drops deep into midfield from his initial position farther upfield, becoming something of an attacking midfielder-cum-support striker in the attack.
That versatility compounds his menace, befuddles the opposing defense and diversifies the Earthquakes' attack. Many a pundit have derided the Quakes as a one-man attack—one of the laziest appraisals one can make.
San Jose is at its most dangerous when strikers Steven Lenhart (eight goals) and Alan Gordon (11) join Wondo up front, creating the sort of Hydra usually reserved for the most outsized of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Wondolowski may enjoy a seven-goal cushion atop the San Jose scoring chart, but his 18 strikes constitute just 32 percent of the total output.
Contrast that to English Premier League side Arsenal last season (2011-12), who on the way to a third-place finish last season scored 74 goals in 38 games.
Their top scorer, Robin van Persie, who has since left for Manchester United, tallied 30 goals that season, or 40.5 percent of total output.
(Interestingly enough Van Persie has scored four of United's eight league goals through three games in the current season—good enough to constitute 50 percent of the attack.)
Arsenal suffered from the stigma that they were nothing more than a "one-man show" last season—something that San Jose likely hears far too often as well.
Following Sunday's Chivas match, Quakes manager Frank Yallop was asked, somewhat facetiously, whether the team had dispelled the notion that they were a one-man team.
The Canadian seemed almost taken aback at first by the absurdity of the question, and responded in kind.
"You can tell me yourself," he said, noting that he'd just seen his side score three times from free kicks against Chivas, on top of Dawkins's goal from the run of play. "The stats say that we're scoring tons of goals from everywhere."
That sharing of the wealth has helped the Earthquakes amass a seven-point advantage at the top of the Western Conference standings, and a three-point cushion over Eastern Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City as they fight for the Supporters Shield, granted to the team with the best league-wide record at the end of the season.
Since netting a hat trick against RSL, Wondolowski has scored just once in San Jose's past seven league fixtures.
Five of those games have been victories.
Including Wondolowski, the Quakes have had seven different goal scorers during those seven matches, a span in which they have fired in 22 goals, or just over three a game (3.14 to be exact, for all the Pi lovers out there).
With the race for the playoffs heating up as the weather cools down, that sharing of the wealth will only increase in significance. San Jose has enjoyed billing as the "team to beat" in MLS for much of the season, frequently named to the top spot in the weekly Power Rankings.
That they have continued to burnish that status with Wondolowski's goal-scoring rate diminishing from rapid-fire to tepid only speaks to this side's potential.
Yallop was effusive in his belief that this year's team is the result of a conscientious, albeit frugal, spending policy that has brought in the blend of players he needs.
The Quakes are a hard-working bunch, each of them willing to fulfill the defensive duties inherent in a top side's success. Their pressing scheme is incessant, their ability to throttle teams on the counterattack—seen so brilliantly against Chivas—unparalleled.
They may be branded as outsiders, they may play in an arena without the thrills and frills of the soccer-specific stadiums enjoyed by their peers (San Jose will break ground on a new stadium on Oct. 21, with construction due to be completed by the start of the 2014 season).
But they could care less. They love their supporters—especially the boisterous 1906 Ultras, who remain standing, chanting and clapping for 90 minutes of every game.
It's in keeping with this side's record-setting philosophy that club president Dave Kaval has requested 4,600 fans to participate in that ground-breaking ceremony.
That number would easily eclipse the Guinness World Record for such an event, currently held by Unique Builders, who used 4,532 people in a 2007 project in Jaipur, India.
For now, San Jose will continue to befuddle opponents at Buck Shaw Stadium, nestled amid the sprawling Spanish mission-style splendor of Santa Clara University.
On some nights, particularly these late-summer ones of late, you're unlikely to find a more sweeping set of vistas—as Quakes winger Shea Salinas, currently injured, tweeted this past weekend.
It's hardly a wrench for the Quakes, who have not lost at Buck Shaw since last season—a run that was extended to 15 games with the Chivas win.
A True Leader
That sort of success has been bred by an unselfish streak shared by every first-team player. Wondolowski is the first to tell you that all he cares about is winning.
The forward takes time after games—doesn't matter if they're wins or losses—to pick out a player, or maybe two, who are enjoying a superb run of form.
Back in mid-July, it was Rafael Baca and Sam Cronin, the central midfielders who form the core of Yallop's 4-4-2 formation.
And when a player is struggling, as Baca was toward the end of that month, seen most notably when he was substituted for Steven Lenhart in the 59th minute of a match against the Chicago Fire, Wondolowski is the first to sidle up to him in the post-match locker room.
After that Fire match, where San Jose had fought to a 1-1 draw, Wondo huddled with Baca for a few minutes in the postgame locker room, encouraging the midfielder and telling him to toss that game aside as a mere anomaly in what has been an excellent season for the former Loyola Marymount player.
Baca took the words to heart, and has been back to his lung-bursting best of late. Against Colorado he provided a sumptuous assist for one of Gordon's goals, and he has been impeccable in his distribution in the center of the park.
Wondo did the same to Ike Opara following that Fire match.
Opara, a young center back who had come on for the injured Victor Bernardez, had been used sparingly all season before being called upon that night. Wondolowski, face etched in stern reprimand, instructed Opara that, above all, he could not get hurt.
A visible weight was lifted from Opara's back, a bark of laughter ensued. The defender has been excellent through the past few games for San Jose, which he has started at center back.
It's those sorts of anecdotes, mixed alongside that now-fabled Goonies "Never say die" mentality, that make this team one to cherish.
Many coaches praise their players, but when Yallop says after every game that there is no ego on this side, that this is a group of players who genuinely enjoy working together, you can do nothing else but believe him.
The doubting Thomases of the media aside, there's no way not to once you've watched this team live. What the Earthquakes have is very, very rare in professional sports.
It is a mentality that is exuded from the 10 players who take the field with him each game night. It flows through the coaching staff, the substitutes and the reserves, and it has created the most successful team in MLS this season.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes used in this article were gathered at San Jose Earthquakes games.
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