Maybe you follow the MLS. Maybe you don’t, and the league is just another sports league acronym lost in your thoughts amongst the WNBA, WWE, UFC, CONCACAF, you name it.
But if you’re a fan of American soccer, you need to be aware of the goal-scoring tear San Jose Earthquakes forward, Chris Wondolowski, has been on over the past two seasons. In the 2011 season, he scored 16 goals in 30 matches, tying DC United’s Dwayne De Rosario for most in the league. This season, Wondo has already scored 17 goals in 20 games, a number that puts him in position to beat Roy Lassiter’s league record of 27 goals, which he recorded in 1996, the league’s inaugural season.
What’s particularly important about Wondo’s achievement is his path to success. The Earthquakes drafted him with the 41st pick in the 2005 MLS SuperDraft. But in the 2005 and 2006 season, he played only 8 total MLS games for San Jose, and through 2009, he played only 59 matches.
So where did Wondo hone his goal-scoring skills? The MLS Reserve league. From 2005-2008, the MLS maintained a full Reserve League, with teams playing 12 matches, so players not competing for the club’s first team could continue to play in competitive games. In 2005 and 2006, Wondolowski led the San Jose Reserve team in scoring, and his experience and achievements in the Reserve League likely contributed to both the technique and confidence that have enabled him to become one of the league’s most dangerous goal-scorer over the past two years.
The MLS re-instituted the Reserve League in 2011, but teams are playing fewer matches, and some games are cancelled due to team’s inability to field enough players. The result is that many players are not getting the competitive matches they need to improve and eventually become contributors to their team and the league the way Wondolowski has.
Wondolowski’s achievements in the MLS have gotten the attention of U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who included the San Jose forward in the roster for the USMNT’s first two World Cup qualifiers in June. It’s yet to be seen whether Wondolowski will see much playing time with the national team, but the U.S.—and every national team—needs players who can score goals. And with players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore playing alongside Wondolowski and serving the ball to his golden feet, he could become another scoring threat the U.S. so desperately needs if it’s going to succeed on the world stage.