As a San Jose assistant coach, John Doyle was supposed to be looking for talent when the Earthquakes held an open tryout in the Bay Area suburb of Danville during the winter of 2004-05.
Instead, he was fixated on a player with a nickname straight out of a children’s story.
“I kept going, ‘Where’s the Wondo kid?’” Doyle recalled. “‘Where’s Wondo?’”
Doyle wasn’t seeking the lead character of a best-selling book series, but instead forward Chris Wondolowski, a Danville product of somewhat less renown who had slipped through that year’s MLS draft after four years and 38 goals at Division II Chico State.
“He kept scoring goals in the open tryouts,” said Doyle, now the Quakes’ general manager. “Just goals, goals, goals.”
More than five years later, Wondolowski has reached that point again. With three strikes in his last three matches, he’s tied for sixth on the MLS scoring table, alongside such better-known names as Conor Casey, Jeff Cunningham and Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
“I’m trying to keep up,” Wondolowski joked of league leader Edson Buddle.
Wondolowski’s game-winners weren’t laughing matters for New England and Colorado. So what’s gotten into a guy who’s already within two goals of tying his career-high for a season, with 25 matches remaining?
“A little maturity, I guess,” Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com. “Each year, I just try to keep learning. The guys around me I think are the biggest [differences]. They’re playing well and creating chances for me. I’m just able to take them.”
Wondolowski has always suffered when comparing resumes with teammates. In Houston, where Wondolowski moved with the Quakes-turned-Dynamo, he was playing behind such luminaries as Brian Ching and Dwayne De Rosario. Back in San Jose after a mid-season trade last year, he is again competing with an impressive roster of strikers.
“In our minds, you go, ‘OK, he’s a good player,’” Doyle said. “But you have Eduardo coming in—proven European experience. You have Ryan Johnson. You have Arturo Alvarez, Cornell Glen. You kind of look and say, ‘We have these guys,’ and maybe he doesn’t get a chance. . . . He was right under our nose.”
Wondolowski only came to the forefront when Eduardo, Alvarez and Glen all suffered hamstring injuries.
“It’s easy when you have high-profile guys to forget about someone who just shows up and does the dirty work and reaps the benefits in front of the goal from time to time,” Quakes defender Jason Hernandez said. “He’s a guy who can have a long career in this league. I think there’s a lot of successful guys around the league who share his blue-collar worth ethic. A guy like [Philadelphia striker] Alejandro Moreno is a good example, where it’s not the flashiest, it doesn’t look the prettiest, but it gets the job done. And that’s all you really need at the end of the day.”
Wondolowski has also benefited recently from playing underneath Johnson in a slightly withdrawn position.
“He kind of floats in that area, and he’s dangerous because defenders are not really going with him quite as much, so he’s freeing himself up,” Doyle said. “And then, he’s always made good runs. He’s sneaky—and that’s a compliment. And he’s finishing.”
About that last fact: It doesn’t hurt that Wondolowski is generally acknowledged as the Quakes’ best pure finisher—evidence of which was seen Saturday with his blistering goal in the 33rd minute. Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens was well-positioned, but simply couldn’t reach Wondolowski’s left-footed strike off the bounce at the edge of the penalty box. The strike was voted the MLS Goal of the Week by league fans.
With previously injured forwards returning to health, Wondolowski will have to continue to earn his playing time. Not that he has a problem with that.
“You never really know how long or when your chances will be, especially with how many forwards we did have,” Wondolowski said. “I didn’t expect it this early this season—it's such a long season—but I expected I would get a chance at some time. Whenever you do, you just have to be ready to make the most of it.”
Wondolowski has achieved that goal, and in doing so raised his own profile around the league.
“I think it just kind of gets the name out there,” Wondolowski said.
True enough. No longer does anyone have to ask, “Where’s Wondo?”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @sjquakes