San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop couldn’t believe his eyes.
Chris Wondolowski had already collected his second career hat trick in the space of 17 minutes Wednesday against Chivas USA, along the way breaking the Quakes’ single-season scoring record and moving into a tie atop the MLS' leaderboard with Los Angeles’ Edson Buddle, each player having 17 goals.
Yet here was Wondolowski in the 85th minute, catching up to Geovanni’s through ball at the edge of the penalty area. And instead of attempting to beat rookie Chivas goalkeeper Kevin Guppy – who was making his MLS debut – with a fourth goal, Wondolowski tried to conjure a back-heel pass to the trailing Justin Morrow.
As Chivas defender Ante Jazic broke up the play to avert the danger, Yallop’s mouth all but hit the turf.
“He’s still trying to back-heel the ball, on his fourth goal tonight, to somebody else,” Yallop said. “If he gets that in, he’s the top goal-scorer in the league, and he’s still thinking about the team.”
To Wondolowski, it was an easy call to make. Jazic was riding his inside shoulder, while Morrow, streaming in from the left wing, was unmarked.
“I just try to play the game,” Wondolowski said. “If I see a guy open, I’m definitely going to try to pass it.”
WATCH: Wondolowski on his hat trick vs. Chivas
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It’s that kind of humbleness that endears Wondolowski to his teammates, even as he keeps piling up records. Where many a goal-scorer has earned a reputation as their team’s selfish diva, perhaps the only thing that will keep the Quakes from praising Wondolowski is if they exhaust the entire English language of superlatives.
“I don’t know what he’s doing, but if he wants me to carry his bags, polish his boots, whatever he wants – I will get him lunch, dinner, whatever,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “He’s making it look easy. It is unbelievable.”
In a game that the playoff-secure Quakes weren’t taking all that seriously – Yallop benched eight starters in an attempt to keep his core fresh for the postseason – things turned downright giddy soon after Wondolowski came on in the 40th minute for injured Cornell Glen.
With scores in the 55th, 59th and 72nd minutes, Wondolowski has now scored his team’s last nine goals in a row, matching the all-time league record in that category, set by Carlos Ruiz with the Galaxy from August 2002 to April 2003. And he assured himself of the league’s best mark in terms of game-winning goals, with nine on the year – an unassailable two-goal lead over Buddle.
“In my opinion, he is hands-down the MVP of this league,” Busch said. “It’s because of not just the amount of goals he’s scored this year, but the importance of those goals. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Winning the Golden Boot could represent the final, winning push for Wondolowski’s league MVP campaign, which has moved into high gear, if the “M-V-P!” chants that reverberated around Buck Shaw Stadium are any indication.
“I’m not sure that [with] all the MVPs that go through our league, everybody on the team is happy for them,” Yallop said. “Everyone in our organization is happy for him. That’s the difference. A big difference. ... You’ve not got a big-headed superstar scoring all the goals that nobody can stand.”
Of the four hat tricks in Earthquakes history, Wondolowski now owns two – and he earned them in the space of less than a month.
“I hope he gets the scoring title, I really do,” said Yallop, who was planning on giving Wondolowski only 30 minutes of playing time. “For a humble person like he is and such a team guy, it will be deserving if he gets it.”
Since Buddle has two assists to Wondolowski’s one, the Galaxy star holds the first tiebreaker and the inside track to the Golden Boot. But at the least, it gives the Quakes something to shoot for during their regular-season finale Saturday in Kansas City.
“To be honest, I’m probably going to have to score two, because I bet Edson’s going to get one,” Wondolowski said. “He’s on a hot streak also. Most importantly, we’re just hoping to get three points. And if we play well and get three points, I bet I’ll have a couple opportunities. It’s on me to put them in.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes