Baseball fans in Toronto are shaking their heads in disbelief. How on earth has Blue Jays outfielder José Bautista – a career utility man – exploded for 52 home runs this season? That’s nearly three-and-a-half times his previous best of 16.
Remarkable on its own. Even more insane when you consider that Bautista turns 30 next month.
In San Jose, there’s another athlete who’s paying close attention. Chris Wondolowski wasn’t a bad baseball player himself while growing up in nearby Danville, Calif., and is still a nut for the game.
And like Bautista, he’s also having an unreal breakout season deep into his MLS career. At 27 years of age and in his sixth season in the league, Wondolowski has an astounding 12 goals – more than twice his career best – and has crashed the party for MVP discussion.
You and Bautista in cahoots, Wondo?
“I love that comparison,” the Earthquakes star told MLSsoccer.com this past week. “Sometimes things just all click in a certain season just like that. You start seeing the ball bigger, the goal looks bigger.”
[inline_node:319598]In a sullied sport like baseball, where unbelievable jumps in power are met with a certain, shall we say, skepticism, Bautista is hearing those nasty whispers. Wondo is not. Perhaps it’s all those performance-enhancing burritos he’s been eating.
“That’s it!” laughs Wondolowski. “That’s my secret.”
If only it were that simple. Wondomania has struck San Jose. His scoring total this year is more than any Earthquake has scored in a season since the team was re-established in 2008. He’s a local native who has rapidly become a fan favorite.
Wondolowski scored his first hat trick last weekend in Toronto and earned MLS Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career. He didn’t add to his 12 goals on Wednesday night against Chicago, but he came close a couple times.
But the question begs to be asked. On a scoring chart topped by known quantities like Edson Buddle, Juan Pablo Angel, Dwayne De Rosario and Omar Cummings, what in the name of Wondo is a veteran who has never scored more than five goals in a season doing there?
“He’s a goal-scorer when given chances,” says Houston coach Dominic Kinnear, who selected Wondolowski 41st in the 2005 supplemental draft. “He doesn’t need eight to 10 chances; he just needs one or two. If he gets those chances, he’ll finish them.”
Really, hot streaks are nothing new to Wondo. In college, he piled up 39 goals and 23 assists for Chico State, even announcing his arrival with a hat trick in just the third match of his freshman year. As a junior, he was instrumental in the Wildcats’ run to the Division II NCAA Championship match.
With the old Quakes and then with the Dynamo, he led the reserve squad in scoring three straight years, including an unbelievable 13 goals in 11 games in 2006.
But his chances for first team minutes were few and far between. The squad had a number of quality finishers in line before him: Brian Ching, De Rosario, Alejandro Moreno, Nate Jaqua – even Kei Kamara.
“I was behind some of the best forwards in the league,” Wondo recalled. “Even if I was coaching the team, I’m not sure I would have put myself out there.”
Not to mention the fact that Kinnear’s system favors midfielders who create, target men and speedsters. For a guy like Wondolowski, not fitting into any of those categories worked against him.
“Chris was always second fiddle to those guys," said Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop, who brought Wondolowski back to San Jose in June of last year in exchange for one of those preferred target men, Cam Weaver.
[inline_node:318452]With the Quakes, however, Wondo has gotten a new lease on life in a system that rewards what he does best. He’s the beneficiary of an up-tempo attack where plenty of players do the dirty work and let someone else get the glory. Wondolowski has been on the receiving end of assists from eight different players so far this season.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to dribble [through] 10 guys and score,” he said. “I’m more of a guy who can make a run in the box and [wait for] good service, which Bobby Convey, Ryan Johnson, Joey Gjertsen and Arturo Alvarez have all provided for me. And I’ve truly appreciated Geovanni. It’s been nice.”
One of the lost arts of Wondolowski’s game is his ability to position himself. Half the battle of scoring a goal is knowing where to be and when, something that’s not lost on his admirers.
“The thing about Wondo is that he’s always moving,” said Kinnear. “He doesn’t stand still.”
Yallop has played Wondolowski in five different positions over the course of the season, varying his attack according to the personnel on hand and the opponent on the other side of the ball. Regardless of where he’s put, Wondo knows his job stays the same.
“I try to anticipate as best I can,” he said. “If I do keep moving, it’s harder to mark [me]. I’ve never been the fastest or strongest guy, so I need that little extra movement to get away from defenders and to create that little extra space.”
They say hard work and patience pays off. That cliché seems to be made for the ultimate under-the-radar player. And a little confidence doesn’t hurt, either.
“The ball looks bigger, the goalkeeper looks smaller,” said Wondo of his hot foot. “You really do have this confidence where you think you’re going to score in every game and every touch. You expect every shot to go in.”
So do Quakes fans. The rest of the league seems to be catching on, too.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.