Maybe Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski is actually working on the side as an international gangster.
After all, MLS defenders trying to mark the breakout star keep swiveling around to locate Wondolowski, only to discover that, like mythical mastermind Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects – poof! – he’s gone.
“My job,” Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com, “is to make him think that he’s marking me when he’s really not marking me.”
That’s not entirely true. Wondolowski’s job is to score goals, something he’s done 12 times this season, tied for third in the league. But a major reason he’s become one of MLS’ greatest scoring threats has been his ability to fall off the radar of opposing defenses, only to spring up, unmarked, in dangerous spaces.
“There’s not a ball that he doesn’t think he can get to,” said Chicago defender C.J. Brown, whose team will be tasked with stopping Wondolowski on Wednesday. “So you’ve got to make sure you challenge everything, because the one time you fall asleep, he’s going to be the guy to jump on it.
[inline_node:318446]“You’ve got to be alert around him. He stays in the game the whole time.”
To some extent, what Wondolowski is doing – burrowing towards open spaces – is the same tactic as any goal-scorer. But since Wondolowski is not a speed-burner, he knows that he can’t free himself before the ball arrives, it’s likely he won’t have any shot at all.
“I just have to anticipate,” Wondolowski said. “I’ve never been the fastest guy, so I have to rely a lot on anticipation.”
Just ask Toronto FC. The second of Wondolowski’s three goals against the Reds last Saturday was a perfect example of how he arrives in the perfect spot at the perfect moment.
While the Quakes passed the ball up and down the left side, from Bobby Convey to Geovanni to Khari Stephenson to Tim Ward to Convey to Stephenson to Geovanni to (finally) Ryan Johnson deep on the wing, Wondolowski was watching and waiting for his moment.
Then he split Toronto defenders Adrian Cann and Raivis Hscanovics to pounce on a perfect low cross from Johnson, easing another goal past Stefan Frei.
Cann and Hscanovics could do nothing more than exchange angry gestures, while Wondolowski and the Quakes celebrated.
“One thing I’ve lived off of my whole career is little movements, especially outside of the box,” Wondolowski said. “I’m just trying to make smart runs. It’s kind of hard as a defender, because you have to watch the ball and the man.
"Once I see the defender take a look at the ball, I try to slip off his back shoulder. That’s what helps me find a little open space.”
[inline_node:316999]Wondolowski also benefits indirectly from his versatility. The fact that he keeps getting bumped around the pitch – he’s played five different positions in five matches, although he should stay at right midfield Wednesday – means instability for him, but it also leads to the opponent’s game-planning often being made worthless from the first whistle.
“I think [San Jose head coach Frank Yallop] gets credit for playing him at right midfield,” Quakes general manager John Doyle said. “If you’re a forward, there’s somebody who marks you [full-time]. If you’re a right midfielder, if you go right at the right time, that other midfielder’s usually not going to go with you.”
It’s also probably not a coincidence that Wondolowski has struck for six of his 12 goals in the seven matches since San Jose signed Khari Stephenson and then brought in Designated Player Geovanni.
“With Geovanni and Khari and Bobby Convey and how well Ryan Johnson played [against Toronto], there’s a lot of things for defenses to worry about now, where in the past we didn’t have as many dimensions,” Doyle said. “I’ve always thought we have good players, but I think our good players are looking better with the additions of Khari and Geovanni.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @sjquakes