Sixteen years ago, Roy Lassiter became Major League Soccer’s first scoring champion, posting 27 goals in league’s inaugural, 32-game season. The U.S. international teamed up with league MVP Carlos Valderrama to help the Tampa Bay Mutiny to the Eastern Conference finals. With two other players eclipsing the 20-goal mark that season, nobody knew if 27 goals would be remarkable or the expectation for future scoring champions.
Fast forward to 2012 and Lassiter still holds the record for most goals in a season, though as the league’s website reminds up today, one man is within striking distance. Coming off a three-goal week, San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski sits on 22 with four games left: vs. FC Dallas, at Colorado, vs. LA Galaxy, at Portland.
Five goals in four games is a big ask, and given San Jose’s bigger goals, the team can’t make the individual mark a priority (no matter how much they’re love for time to get it). But if there was a plan to be devised on how to get Wondo to 27, it might include these things:
1. Penalty kicks – In three of the four remaining games, San Jose will be favored. They’ll probably be able to control those matches, which should lead to a greater probability of earning penalty kicks. If San Jose can get two chances from the spot, that will go a long way toward getting Wondolowski five goals.
2. Beat up on the little guys – Despite what happened in San Jose last week, Portland’s still struggling. So is Colorado. Those are road games, so there’s an added level of difficulty, but big games against the conference’s two weakest opponents will alleviate Wondolowski’s need to score often against LA and Dallas’s stringier defenses.
3. One big game – And if Wondowloski can have one huge game in this span, the rest of the challenge becomes much easier. If he hits for three against Colorado or Portland, Wondolowski only has to score two-in-three over the rest of the month.
If one or two of those things come together, Wondolowski can still pass Lassiter, doing so without the aid of a virtuoso like Valderrama. Wondolowski also pursues an honest-to-goodness record. In 1996, nobody knew if 27 goals was a huge amount, something to expect every year, or a total which would eventually be squashed. Lassiter didn’t have the pressures Wondolowski will face.
There’s also the team concerns. Between the Supporter’s Shield chase, the goal-scoring mark, and the playoffs, San Jose’s final two-plus months of the season set up similarly to how Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski approaches NCAA basketball tournaments. He’s described them as a series of three, two-game tournaments, each building on the former until everything comes together at the Final Four. For San Jose, the focus of closing out the Supporters Shield could give way to the goal-scoring record then the playoffs, each goal requiring a different type of commitment.
But giving the goal-scoring race that kind of attention could backfire, regardless of whether Wondolowski gets the record. San Jose must avoid investing too much and peaking before the playoffs. If Wondo scores a couple of goals against Dallas, the record will move front-and-center. Frank Yallop and San Jose will need to be very careful not to squelch his team’s enthusiasm while maintaining their perspective on the bigger goals.