Ten days ago, when San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop first brought up the notion of Chris Wondolowski as a candidate for league MVP, it was hard to take him very seriously.
After all, Wondolowski was a 27-year-old who never won a full-time job in five previous MLS seasons — a guy with little or no national name recognition, playing on a team that was still scraping just to cling to the edge of the playoff picture.
Saturday, that all changed.
With his first career MLS hat trick powering the Quakes to a 3-2 road victory against Toronto FC, Wondolowski not only put San Jose on the brink of their first postseason berth since being re-established in 2008, but he also threw his hat in the ring as a legitimate MVP contender.
WATCH: Full match highlights
Wondolowski, who had only seven career MLS goals coming into 2010, now has 12 on the season, putting him in a tie for third in the league, alongside Philadelphia’s Sebastien Le Toux and Toronto's Dwayne De Rosario. Up next: New York’s Juan Pablo Angel (13) and Los Angeles’ Edson Buddle, who leads the league with 14.
“I said it last week: If you had to chisel an Earthquakes player out of rock, it’d be Wondolowski,” Yallop said. “He’s proven his quality. To score 12 goals in this league, it’s very, very difficult. He’s done a good job of that.”
It was the first hat trick by a Quakes player since Landon Donovan and De Rosario each pulled one off in successive September weekends during San Jose’s run to the 2003 MLS Cup.
“[Wondolowski] has been out of this world,” said Quakes right back Chris Leitch, who watched then-teammate Amado Guevara win the league MVP award for New York in 2004. “He does everything that’s asked of him and more, whether or not he’s been playing up front, out wide, in the middle. He’s been playing everywhere, doesn’t say anything about it, puts his head down and accomplishes his goal, game-in and game-out.
“No matter where he is, he always finds the goal and is dangerous. What more could you want out of a player?”
How about some defense? Unlike some of the other leading MVP candidates this season – a list that includes Donovan (the 2009 winner), Le Toux, Dallas playmaker David Ferreira and Seattle attacker Fredy Montero – Wondolowski takes both portions of his game seriously. Having been bumped of late from San Jose's forward line to the wings to make room for Designated Player Geovanni, Wondolowski has proven himself to be a two-way force.
Three minutes after his final goal put San Jose ahead 3-1 in the 67th, Wondolowski tracked all the way back to his own penalty spot in order to sneak in behind Chad Barrett.
Wondolowski’s whistle-clean sliding tackle kept Toronto’s second-leading scorer from getting an otherwise wide-open shot at Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch.
“To see him come back and make that tackle, that’s why Chris Wondolowski is a very valuable player for us, because he’s not afraid of doing the dirty work as well as doing the more noticeable things,” Leitch told MLSsoccer.com. “He does it in every game we play in.”
Wondolowski is the first Quakes player to bag a dozen goals since Brian Ching did it in 2004 for the old San Jose franchise, which decamped to Houston a year later. Even more important, Wondolowski now leads the league in game-winning goals, with seven. That’s a San Jose franchise record, be it old or new Quakes.
Afterwards, Wondolowski tried hard to deflect praise, opining that forward Ryan Johnson, who enjoyed only his second start since the World Cup break and delivered two crosses that helped set up goals, deserved to be named the Quakes’ man of the match.
“To be honest, I’m not even sure if I’m the MVP of the team,” Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com. “Bobby Convey, [Jon] Busch have been having great seasons. There’s too many great players, even on this team, for me to be considered. Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely honored by that [talk] and flattered, but I’m definitely not [MVP].”
Sometimes, that kind of talk can ring false, but Wondolowski has earned his humility through five years of waiting for this kind of chance to come.
“For me, he’s been excellent because he’s been 100 percent committed to his team and his teammates,” Yallop said. “He won’t take the accolades for him, because he wants to be part of the team, which is fantastic.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . On Twitter: @sjquakes