In the end, Chris Wondolowski will have to share a room at the top.
Wondolowski scored his 27th goal of the season in the 24th minute of San Jose’s 1-1 tie against Portland Saturday, but he couldn’t find No. 28, leaving him tied with Roy Lassiter as co-holders of MLS’ single-season scoring record.
“I know how hard it is, how great of a legend Roy Lassiter is,” Wondolowski said immediately after the final whistle on NBC Sports Network. “To share a record with him and to always be linked with him, I couldn’t be happier.”
Wondolowski had other chances – most notably an open 66th-minute header that wound up in the side netting – but had to settle for matching Lassiter’s mark, set during the league’s inaugural season in 1996.
“Amazing,” said Quakes coach Frank Yallop, who played alongside Lassiter on the Tampa Bay Mutiny in ‘96. “It’s a shame he didn’t break it. ... He’s been great all year. Once he got pretty close, he was going to do the record and we were really hoping he was going to do it.”
The result came at the end of a long week for Wondolowski spent under the media’s magnifying glass. The 29-year-old relished a chance to play and leave the talking to others, at least for a couple of hours.
“Happy,” Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com of his feelings. “But I’m relieved it’s all over. It was just a relief when the first whistle sounded.”
Wondolowski moved alongside Lassiter by converting a penalty kick generated off a long counter-attacking run by San Jose target man Steven Lenhart. Portland goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts charged all the way outside of his own penalty box, but Lenhart got to the pass first, touching it into open space. Ricketts bundled over Lenhart as both men chased after the ball, and referee Mark Geiger immediately pointed to the spot.
Wondolowski stepped up and adroitly tucked a shot just inside the post to his left. Ricketts, despite diving in the proper direction, could not lay a hand on it.
“There’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders,” Yallop said. “With the enormity of the event, to hold his nerve and bury that penalty is phenomenal.”
Wondolowski’s teammates had said during the week that they would try to get him every chance to pass Lassiter, and things seemed primed in the 14th minute for a classic Wondolowski goal. Lenhart nodded on a Marvin Chavez corner kick and Wondolowski, unmarked, raced to intercept it at the back post – but Quakes midfielder Shea Salinas, unaware of Wondolowski’s presence, snapped a header off frame.
The next chance came in the 43rd minute, when San Jose center back Jason Hernandez set Wondolowski loose behind Portland’s defense with a gorgeous 50-yard delivery over the top. The Timbers’ David Horst – who said during the week “we’re not going to let Wondo break this record” – raced back and made a spectacular sliding tackle to defuse the situation.
Wondolowski had back-to-back opportunities in the 65th and 66th minutes. While the first was a tightly angled shot that Ricketts blocked with relative ease, the second was a more legitimate threat. Salinas chipped a ball from the right wing and found Wondolowski free from marker Kosuke Kimura on the back post. But Wondolowski’s header zipped wide to the near side, and he’d never get so close again.
“It was just horrible execution,” Wondolowski said. “I tried going near post. I definitely should have tried hitting that low and hard to the far post.”
The Quakes tried desperately to find Wondolowski with crosses that grew longer and longer as time drew shorter and shorter, but Ricketts batted them away with ease.
As a consolation prize, Wondolowski now holds the league’s all-time record for most combined goals and assists in a single season, leaving behind Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, who had 33 combined (18 goals, 15 assists) for the Dallas Burn in 1999. Wondolowski finished the regular season with seven assists in addition to his 27 goals to best the former MVP’s mark.
Better yet, Wondolowski can go back to being just one more player vying for the MLS championship. Appreciating the full magnitude of what he has already achieved this year will have to wait until after the postseason to be properly felt.
“This definitely won’t sink in until the end,” Wondolowski said. “I’m just hoping it will start to sink in with us holding the Cup.”