PORTLAND, Ore. — Show me a record, and I’ll show a mark that deserves an asterisk. There’s always an argument to be made. Eric Dickerson had two more games than O.J. Simpson. Barry Bonds played with juiced baseballs and juice arms. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game was less professional game than exhibition. Even free-falls from the edge of space require perfect weather conditions. Depending on your point to view, any record can be skewed. All it takes is enough cynicism.
But that’s the nature of records. They’re always set under the most advantageous circumstances. To start picking them apart is to deny records themselves. No competitive result takes place in a vacuum, and if it did, we wouldn’t care. The meaning behind the achievement comes when the odds can go for or against you; when you have no control of the context; when you have to wait for circumstances beyond your control to lineup up so perfectly that it creates a once in a lifetime opportunity.
And then you still have to perform.
Other, lesser numbers may be more impressive in context, and still others may have been posted by those with half the talent and twice the luck. But to set a record – to put your name on the top of a list that will be referenced for as long as people play soccer in this country – everything has to come together, just as everything did for Chris Wondolowski, whose 27th goal of the season Saturday night tied him for the all-time single-season record in Major League Soccer.
You have to be good. You have to be impeccably good. Nobody stumbles into 27 goals. Other players have had more and better chances, but only one put away 27. Even if somebody someday hits 28, they’ll never be able to say Wondolowski didn’t deserve this mark.
You need help. “Wondo” has the league’s best team around him, one that outscored the rest of the league by some distance. He helped get career years out of Steven Lenhart, Alan Gordon, Marvin Chavez and Sam Cronin. Rafael Baca and Simon Dawkins had their best professional seasons.
Wondo didn’t do it alone, and he knows it.
“I appreciate all the teammates that have done so much,” Wondolowski said afterward. “[S]uch hard work … a lot of credit goes to them.”
“I know when I play with him, or when he’s on the field, that he wants to win,” San Jose forward Steven Lenhart said, having played necessary role in Wondolowski’s record-tying effort. “[H]e’s going to give everything he has, so it makes me give everything I have … it’s just a joy to be a part of.”
You need the circumstances to fall in line. Four seasons ago, Wondolowski was playing for one of the best coaches in Major League Soccer, but he just didn’t fit with the team. He scored only four goals in 39 games in for Dominic Kinner in Houston (and San Jose). Traded to the Earthquakes, Wondolowski has slid into a system that fits his skillset. In his four seasons back in the Bay Area, Wondo’s scored 66 goals in 104 games.
And you need luck. Wondolowski’s scored some goals from the spot (four), a few in added time (three goals beyond 90′), and handful while up a man (three). All these circumstances require luck, but it’s the same luck every striker that’s ever played has had on their sides. Wondo made the most of it.
On Saturday, a different kind of luck came into play when San Jose was awarded a controversial penalty. You can thank Steven Lenhart or Mark Geiger for goal 27, or you can credit Wondolowski for being in position to capitalize. Isn’t that what goal scoring’s all about?
It is the nature of records to be set when everything falls in line. If it wasn’t Wondolowski, it would have been somebody else years from now for whom the stars aligned. Today, 16 years after Roy Lassiter set the mark, Wondo became that somebody else, a somebody who sits unbeaten on Major League Soccer’s single-season goalscoring charts.
“To have my name even mentioned with him, it’s a true honor,” Wondolowski said of Lassiter, the man with whom is is now inextricably linked. “I’m full of glee right now.”
He deserved the moment. Fans were left pondering the simulation that drew the fateful penalty, but their cynicism will fade, as it should. Other players have benefitted from such behavior, only their goals weren’t record-tiers. Just because Wondolowski’s was number 27 doesn’t mean it should overshadow the 26 that came before it.
And it won’t. No Bowie Kuhn is going to put an asterisk on this mark. There is the genuine feeling around the league that Wondolowski’s earned this.
“He’s had a tremendous, tremendous season,” Portland Timbers head coach Gavin Wilkinson said after the game, choosing to focus on Wondo’s record rather than how it came about. “Take the decision out of it … He’s tied the MLS record, and it’s gone to a very, very good player.”
If everything fell into place – up to and including the final, record-tying goal – it doesn’t make the mark any less valuable. It makes the mark no different than every other record that exists in competitive sports.
On Saturday, Chris Wondolowski took his rightful place along site Roy Lassiter. If there’s one thing that’s become clear over the last the last eight months, it’s that he’s earned the honor.
Highlights from Wondo’s historic night in Portland:This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!
Wondowlowski, after the match:This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!