For Earthquakes president Dave Kaval, the essence of Chris Wondolowski, the player, person and the patriot, was captured in one glorious sequence.
It came on just one of his 27 goals overall this season, but it was pure Wondo.
Just days from the Fourth of July, in front of 50,000-plus at Stanford Stadium, on Military Appreciation Night, Wondo made Northern California soccer’s collective heart sing. Marvin Chavez whipped in the cross, Ramiro Corrales got a flick, and Wondo pounced. His magic touch on a back-heel flick beat LA Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders to bring a come-from-behind 4-3 victory.
Wondo celebrated by racing toward a group of military personnel behind the signage boards, high-fiving and hugging them. The raw emotion and joy were palpable. It was just one priceless moment during Wondo’s show-stopping season: a great American soccer story.
“That one experience really sums everything up,” Kaval said. “Not only does he get that really cheeky little goal, back heel, to put us up 4-3, but then he gives a celebration to the military on the Military Night. You can’t beat that. That sums him up in a nutshell if you saw that one incident. It was such a memorable sight.”
Wondolowski, a Danville native, on Thursday was named Volkswagen MLS Most Valuable Player.
He represents the answer to an age-old question: Can a homegrown kid rise from suburban youth soccer to the zenith of the American professional game?
Quakes general manager John Doyle attributes much of Wondo’s success to hard work and good health. Plus there's the good-things-happen-to-good-people part of the equation. Everybody roots for Wondo in the organization, in large measure because he roots for them.
“It truly goes to show that the MLS can develop great players,” Doyle said. “It shows that someone like him that works his butt off every day gets rewarded for his hard work. People don’t realize how hard he works and the amount of time that he works on finishing every day.
"Knock on wood. He’s healthy, which is a great thing for us. He’s not an injury-riddled person. He tends to stay healthy, which helps him. I like his character on the field. He wants to win. He’s competitive. His character off the field: Anything we need as far for the club he’s willing to do for us. His teammates are happy when he does well, which is a big deal for me. His teammates love him. The fans love him. We love him, so the MVP award is well-deserved.”
Wondo’s 27 goals, to go along with a career-high seven assists, matched ex-Tampa Bay great Roy Lassiter’s league scoring mark set in 1996 during MLS’ inaugural season. The league is considered much tougher today.
“He’s one of the great stories in sports,” Kaval said of Wondo. “He has elevated himself to the absolute echelon of American soccer. He scored a record that was set 16 years ago in a league that was far, far different. He’s done it with absolute charisma, and he’s down to earth. He’s the kind of guy who could hang out with anyone. He’s as good as it gets. It’s rare to have such an elite athlete with that kind of a reputation that has a connection to the fans and to the community. It is just awesome to have someone like Wondo on your team.”
Wondolowski, 29, has come of age with rocket speed over the past three seasons. It's hard to fathom that he scored seven goals total, playing in just 53 games, in his first six MLS seasons as he earned his chops.
He has tallied 61 goals over the past three seasons and acquired two Budweiser Golden Boot Awards, while also tracking back on defense, an oft-overlooked facet of his game.
Moreover, he has gladly devoted massive amounts of time to community service and comported himself in practice like one of the guys.
Kaval thinks Wondo’s intelligence makes all the difference in games, especially when considering how determined opposing teams are to keep him on off the score sheet.
“I think he’s the smartest player in the league. That’s why it’s easy for a lot of people to really fall in love with him because it just shows that anyone can succeed,” Kaval said. “You don’t have to be 6-4 and 240 and be blessed with 4.5 speed. He’s just smarter than the other players in terms of his ability to be in the right position to capitalize on the opportunities that he has and to really elevate the team to another level. That’s a rare find.”