LONDON, England – Chris Wondolowski isn't the type of guy who should need to seek validation.
He just completed perhaps the finest individual season in the history of MLS and tied the single-season goal-scoring record in the process. His 27-goal campaign placed him atop the scoring charts for a third consecutive season. He plays for the resurgent San Jose Earthquakes , who just broke ground on a new stadium, lifted the Supporters' Shield and secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
As great as all those achievements will look as time progresses, they aren't enough right now to satisfy Wondolowski. He needs a victory in MLS Cup to complete this magical run.
"That's what would really make this season valid," Wondolowski said in a phone interview earlier this week. "It doesn't do a whole lot to have a great regular season. We made a tremendous effort to win the Supporters' Shield and that's great, but we want MLS Cup. That's first and foremost. The personal accolades and the team accolades don't mean anything unless you're holding that cup up at the end."
The MVP-in-waiting shares that sentiment with a group of committed and talented teammates capable of complementing his significant poaching abilities in the final third. Wondolowski didn't score 27 goals this season simply because he moves well, picks up the right spots and polishes off the majority of chances presented to him inside the penalty area. His prolific production also results from having Alan Gordon (13 goals) and Steven Lenhart (10 goals) alongside him to create space and wingers Marvin Chávez (13 assists) and Simon Dawkins (eight goals) to offer plenty of supply from midfield as part of the league's most potent attack (72 goals scored).
"That's what really drives it," Wondolowski said. "That's been our success. We can score in multiple ways. We're not as one-dimensional as we maybe were in years past. We have multiple guys and defenses have to key on that. Defenses have tried certain ways and certain tactics to try to take out certain individuals. It opens up holes for other people. That's really helped me to be successful."
Modesty is usually hard to find in goal-scorers, but Wondolowski's self-effacing statements fit in neatly with a group Lenhart frequently compares to the plucky lot in "The Goonies." Wondolowski may draw most of the headlines (and Lenhart may provoke most of the ire from opposing players), but this is truly a collective effort propelled by a bunch of aggressive and tested players.
"The big thing that sticks out for me is our camaraderie," Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop said in a phone interview earlier this week. "Our team spirit is fantastic. No matter what happens, we always stick together. That's what carried us through, along with a ton of talent on the field."
Talent isn't enough without that extra special something to bring it altogether. Wondolowski's precision in front of goal accounts for most of it (he scored 26 of his 27 goals from inside the penalty area this season, according to a statistic compiled by ESPN), but the Earthquakes' carefully honed knack of snatching results in the late stages of matches could prove even more crucial as the stakes increase. San Jose scored a staggering 40 goals in the final half-hour of games this season (including 22 in the final quarter of an hour plus stoppage time), a total that exceeds the output generated by seven other teams in all minutes played.
With Dawkins and Gordon likely to return from ankle knocks in time for the Western Conference semifinal opener against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, the primary question surrounding the Earthquakes right now is whether their tendency to fall behind will finally come back to haunt them at the worst possible time.
"That's just the way the games went," Yallop explained. "What we're going to do is make sure that we are playing like we've played all season: free-flowing, attacking football. We've scored 72 goals. It's difficult to score any goals in our league, never mind that many. We're excited about our offensive output. We just have to tighten up and make sure we do some better work as a defensive unit. That's what we've been working on this week, heading into the playoffs. We're probably always going to concede goals because of the way we play, but as long as we can make sure we finish our chances and do that, we'll be OK."
The presence of Gordon, Lenhart and Wondolowski up front, Chávez and Dawkins in midfield, Defender of the Year contender Victor Bernárdez in the middle of a solid back four and seasoned veteran Jon Busch in goal lends credence to Yallop's assertions. Other teams may boast more talented players in their ranks, but no side - perhaps with the exception of Sporting Kansas City - functions better as a unit.
Every ounce of that collective strength must move in the same direction to buck the trend of Supporters' Shield winners ducking out of the postseason before the MLS Cup is awarded. San Jose will hope to follow in the path of Columbus (2008) and its hated rivals from Los Angeles (2011) to become just the third Shield winner in the past ten years to claim the MLS Cup.
The poor record of standout teams in the postseason shows how difficult it is to navigate through the playoffs even for the most accomplished sides. Nevertheless, it is still a challenge these Earthquakes - and especially their leading figure and talisman - know they need to overcome to truly cap their stellar campaign with a title.
"We don't want to get knocked out in the first round or second round," Wondolowski said. "We want to win it all. That's our goal. It's tough to say, but it really is all or nothing. It's a tough thing. That's why it's so coveted and that's why it's so hard to do, to win MLS Cup."