SAN JOSE, Calif. — Chris Wondolowski goes to work for the San Jose Earthquakes with little fanfare, the pursuit of Landon Donovan's Major League Soccer career scoring mark hardly weighing on his mind as he focuses his energy on providing an example for his teammates and the youth.
Wondo, as everyone calls him, played in college at tiny Division II Chico State, not part of an elite youth national team program. He didn't make his debut with the U.S. national team until six days before his 28th birthday in January 2011 — after he had already won the 2010 MLS Golden Boot for the first of his two scoring titles. When he scored a hat trick against Belize in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, he did it with his last name misspelled on the jersey: "W-O-N-D-O-W-L-O-W-S-K-I."
That unique, difficult path is what makes the record he is chasing all the more remarkable.
The 35-year-old San Jose forward enters the weekend with 142 goals, three shy of Donovan's record. The Earthquakes provide regular "Wondo Watch" updates reminding everyone of where their star and captain stands.
"It's kind of one of those things it's pretty cool but for me right now it's just kind of a number," Wondolowski said after a recent practice at Avaya Stadium. "It's pretty amazing to be mentioned with Landon. It's good to be relevant in that sense but other than that I've kind of been more concentrating on this year trying to get some wins."
The 35-year-old San Jose Earthquakes forward has 142 goals and is closing in on Donovan's MLS career mark of 145. The Quakes provide regular "Wondo Watch" updates reminding everyone of where their star and captain stands in his pursuit.
Wondowloski has eight goals and five assists with five matches remaining.
While Donovan isn't quite ready to give up his place on top, he also realizes Wondolowski's journey has been both unheralded and improbable.
"There are two pieces for me. One is the ego piece of being an athlete and always wanting to be on top of any list that you've worked hard to be on the top of," said Donovan, tied with Clint Dempsey for the national team record of 57 goals. "But the human side of me understands how much Chris has worked to have this opportunity, and when you really dissect his career, he got a much, much, much later start than any of us did. And so if you would have put money on Chris getting to this point and this close to the all-time MLS goals record after his first few years where he almost never played, the odds would have been billions to one. So it's just remarkable what he's been able to do in less time than the rest of us and how consistent he's been."
And Wondolowski has shined right at home in his Bay Area backyard, having grown up in the East Bay suburb of Danville.
"I've been fortunate enough to talk to kids and things of that nature, and one of the things I've always mentioned was there are many paths to your goal and some are the short paths, some are long, some have obstacles and barriers, and to get over them and accomplish them and just stay along that path," he said. "It's been crucial and important in my career."
Wondolowski still enjoys everything about his job, even the grind of training — and his teammates take notice of that positive, always-give-your-all spirit even during a down year.
Especially after the heartbreak in Brazil four years ago at the World Cup, then the Americans' failure to qualify for this year's World Cup in Russia.
Wondolowski may long be known for the goal he failed to score in Brazil, a monumental miss from close range in the final minute of second-half stoppage time at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as the Americans were eliminated with a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium in the round of 16.
He sailed that one-touch try wide and over the crossbar as the goalkeeper charged out.
"I'm gutted to have let down everyone but especially my teammates. It's been an incredible ride but I know this will make me stronger," he wrote on Twitter afterward.
Before Wondo even earned a spot on then-U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann's 23-man roster for the World Cup, his coach for the Earthquakes, Mark Watson, insisted the forward's best soccer was still ahead.
Donovan was cut from that team in a stunning move by Klinsmann, then while working as an analyst he criticized his former coach for not building the right roster to succeed on soccer's biggest stage. Wondolowski didn't take it personally.
For now, Wondo is certainly still playing like he's in his prime.
"He's 35 years old and you can see that he's never happy with what he has achieved until now, so it's for for everybody to train every day with him because he wants to be always on top and to push us always to be our best," Earthquakes midfielder Jahmir Hyka said. "I hope that he can break this record. It will also for his teammates be something good."
Donovan is widely considered the best player in MLS history, so matching his goals total would mean so much for Wondolowski — and Donovan is ready for the next young star to emerge and far surpass the number one day.
"In reality for us, Major League Soccer is so young," Donovan said. "If these records are not being broken there's a big problem. It means we're not progressing, and we all want soccer to get better. So if this were baseball that's been around 100-plus years, there are certainly records, Cal Ripken's, that likely will never be broken. But we're very young in our history here so you want these records to be broken. You want people coming along and shattering these records, because it means the league is getting better and soccer is getting better. With all respect to Wondo, I hope when he breaks it the record gets broken again and again and again."