Chris Wondolowski's pursuit of Landon Donovan's record for the most goals in MLS regular-season history (145) proved to be a metaphor for his entire career.
You knew the San Jose Earthquakes forward was there, you could sense his presence. But then your thoughts drifted elsewhere, dazzled perhaps by the record-breaking exploits of Atlanta United's Josef Martinez or Zlatan Ibrahimovic's latest golazo for the LA Galaxy. At which point, Wondolowski would remind you just how great he has been.
So it proved on Saturday afternoon against the Chicago Fire, as Wondolowski scored four times -- the first four-goal game of his career -- to break Donovan's record. He did it with a bit of stealth and plenty of guile, remaining what he has been throughout his career: MLS' phantom menace.
First, in the 21st minute, Wondolowski latched onto Shea Salinas' low, driven cross to stab home at the far post to equal Donovan's mark of 145. Twenty seven minutes later, he moved past Donovan and into sole position atop the MLS goal-scoring summit, first on the scene to pounce on an error from Fire goalkeeper David Ousted in vintage Wondo fashion. With the record now his, he wasted no time adding to it, scoring in quick succession in both the 74th and 76th minutes to bring his total to 148.
Talk to those who played with Wondolowski and against him and there is immense respect for what he has achieved. But even as he plays in his 16th season, through 338 league games and now a record 148 regular-season goals, there is also a touch of bewilderment. He isn't speedy like former Seattle Sounders forward Obafemi Martins nor is he powerful in the air like the Colorado Rapids' Kei Kamara. He has made a career out of lulling opponents to sleep, then punishing them.
Houston Dynamo defender A.J. DeLaGarza said it best: "When you're marking Wondolowski, he's still open."
So, how is it that a player with little in the way of obvious physical gifts has been able to so flummox opposition defenses? Like most forwards, Wondolowski is fiercely competitive. The desire to score goals is always there.
"Every single time he scores, he celebrates it like it's his first one," said Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi. "And he is just continuously hungry for goals."
But the key component to Wondolowski's game is continual movement that never allows him to be marked easily. It was this trait that former Chelsea defender John Terry described as "fantastic" after playing against Wondolowski in the 2012 MLS All-Star Game, a match in which the Quakes forward scored.
"Wondolowski's movement was always about finding a different space, finding an angle," said ESPN analyst and former Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller. "A defender gets caught ball-watching and he's not there anymore."
What has made Wondolowski's movement so special is that there's a "when" to accompany the "what," revealing an attuned soccer brain.
"I think the thing that really was and has been the cornerstone of his career is the timing of his runs in the box," said former Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers defender Nat Borchers about Wondolowski. "It was more that he was going to out-think you, that was the frustrating thing."
Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan added with a smile, "[Wondolowski] is always aware of where the space is and always on your back shoulder. He's a pest and sometimes it's really frustrating playing against him."
To be clear, there are athletic aspects to Wondolowski's skill set. He remains a player, even at age 36, who is plenty mobile in terms of getting around the field. He also possesses the kind of short burst to get away from defenders, which helps him to turn tight spaces in the box into bigger ones.
"I think people look at Wondo, there's something -- I don't want to say unathletic -- very untraditional about the way he moves on a soccer field," said RSL GM Craig Waibel, who played with and against Wondolowski in San Jose and Houston. "He's so fluid that I think it was deceptive."
His endurance also borders on the legendary. Waibel recalled how when the two were with the Dynamo, Wondolowski would follow up a practice in Houston's sapping humidity with another 20 minutes of finishing work with then-assistant John Spencer. He would recover in plenty of time to do it again the next day. That dedication paid off on the field -- both in terms of stamina and finishing; 42.3 percent of his shots have hit the target in the past seven seasons, as compared with the league average of 35.4 percent -- and was noticed by opponents such as Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler.
"You may be able to keep up with Wondolowski for the first half or the first 60 minutes, but over the course of the 90 minutes, I'd be interested to know when he scored goals in games and when his percentage of goals has come in the last 15 or 20 minutes," he said. "I'd say a big factor in that is just his willingness to run throughout the game. He really wears down opposing defenders."
Besler's instincts are correct. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, broken into 15-minute intervals, Wondolowski scored a higher percentage of his goals in the second half of games during his career than the league average.
From minute 46 to 60, Wondolowski scored 17.5 percent of his goals, as compared to 16.8 percent for MLS leaguewide. From minute 61 to 75, the percentages were 21.0 percent to 17.1 percent for MLS. From minute 76 to 90, Wondolowski scored 23.1 percent of his goals, as compared to the league average of 22.4 percent.
Wondolowski is also the ultimate optimist and opportunist. There is simply no such thing as a low-percentage chance.
"As a forward, you talk about certain things; always finishing your run, just in case the ball misses everybody and goes all the way through to the back post," Besler said. "Or you follow up the shot just in case the goalkeeper saves it for a rebound.
"Wondo is the only guy that I've played against that does that 100 percent of the time. If there's a shot, I'll put my house on it that Wondo is going to be there following it up. And nine times out of 10, the goalkeeper saves it and nobody recognizes it. But the one time that the goalkeeper doesn't save it or there's a deflection or whatever happens, he's in that spot. And 10 times out of 10, he makes that run just in case.
So, after all of these years and all of these goals, Wondolowski has now made history. Yet there is still a sense that he is a tad underappreciated, at least outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Sure, he won the MVP in 2012, the same season he became what was then MLS' single-season joint-record scorer, and was a Best XI selection for three straight seasons starting in 2010. But his miss against Belgium in the round of 16 of the 2014 World Cup still weighs heavy, even as Wondolowski soldiered on in its aftermath. The fact that the Quakes have made the playoffs just three times since he returned to San Jose in 2009 hasn't helped, either. Then there is his style of play.
"His game is hard to describe," Besler said. "That's probably why he's still somehow underrated. But to me, scoring goals is a skill; it's just like passing or shooting or running or dribbling. He has this instinct to score, and I don't think enough people rate that and view that as a skill. Some people might look at it and just assume it's hard work or at times luck or whatever reason it is. But in my mind, it's a skill, and he has mastered being able to sniff out a goal. He has this unique ability to figure out where the ball is going to drop before anybody else."
Longevity and consistency can result in someone being taken for granted. The Quakes forward has reached double-digit goals nine seasons in a row -- a remarkable stretch. Then there is his personality. While Wondolowski will let out a trademark roar when he scores, the rest of the time he operates in an understated way. And as bigger names such as Ibrahimovic have joined the league, Wondolowski has been eclipsed.
"People will put asterisks by it," said Waibel about Wondolowski breaking the record. "It's because he's not the big, flashy, camera-hungry guy, he's not the self-promoting goal scorer. ... He's almost an antithesis of what goal scorers are in terms of personality."
But numbers matter most of all, and on that count, Wondolowski is now standing alone atop the MLS goal-scoring heap with 148.