Chris Wondolowski is celebrating right before my eyes, which isn’t much of a surprise, because he’s celebrating right before everyone else’s, too. He’s grinning in that half-serial-killer half-kid-in-a-candy-shop way that’s endearing but also kind of terrifying. In a few days, he’ll probably be crowned the best – or, because this is America, “the most valuable” – MLS player of the 2012 season. In the unlikely event that someone else wins, San Jose fans will get very upset, and a massive Internet argument, replete with blog posts, newspaper articles, Twitter feuds, and message board profanity, will ensue. Wondo – who plays foil to strike partner and probable-Antichrist Steven Lenhart, and who also scores goals and smiles and always stays on his feet, will say he doesn’t care, that there’s no “I” in team, but really he’ll be smarting, because these things matter more than they should.
For those of you who don’t already know, Wondolowski is, alongside the MLS Disciplinary Committee, the most talked-about story of MLS 2012. His team, the San Jose Earthquakes, won this year’s Supporter’s Shield in buccaneering, come-from-behind style. For his part, Wondo has spent the year chasing the record for most goals scored in a single MLS season.
One of the things that annoy people about sports coverage, especially sports coverage in the United States, is TV’s obsession with the personal angle. A million boring interviews get squeezed into 30 minutes of pre-game fluff designed to fill up the short intervals between bona fide events. The problem isn’t the “human element” itself – all of us, even the cynics, are fascinated by news about other people’s lives – but the pretense that that gooey, personal stuff is somehow on a par with the games, goals, and stats.
What makes Wondolowski’s story different, and therefore cool, is that TV – to the degree that mainstream TV even cares about Wondo, or any football player, for that matter – hasn’t yet managed to turn his sports career into reality television. Wondo’s early career struggles – the trials and tribulations that sucked at the time, but, you know, didn’t kill him and therefore made him stronger – read like something out of a sports geek’s fantasy: forty-first pick in the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft, innocent victim of franchise redevelopment, scorer of five goals in 53 professional matches in the first five years of an unpromising career — you get the idea.
And then there’s the goal-scoring record. The race to become the greatest Golden Boot winner of all the golden boot winners. #Wondo26, #Wondo27. Catching Roy “Rocket” Lassiter. The record’s appeal has nothing to do with Wondolowski himself – he’s just the guy who scored the right number of goals at the right time – and everything to do with fans’ deep-seated, slightly irrational obsession with individual achievements, especially if they have to do with numbers. On the same day as the Portland game, Lionel Messi scored his 300th Barcelona goal, inaugurating a week of endless Messi Conversation on the Internet, all of it depressingly similar to the last Messi Conversation on the Internet, the one that celebrated Messi’s status as Barcelona’s all-time top scorer and produced exactly nothing in the way of original, intellectually stimulating discourse. And no, I’m not comparing Wondolowski to Messi – that kind of hyperbole would earn me about as much online respect as that latest Messi discussion yielded in genuinely thought-provoking reflection. I mention Messi because the handling of his career’s milestones is representative of the media’s attitude towards statistical quirks and personal records, since he is someone who eats statistical quirks and personal records for breakfast.
In recent years, most of the Messi Conversation on the Internet has revolved around a set of totally subjective questions: Is Messi the best player in the world? Of all time? If not, what does he need to do to become the best player in the world? Of all time? Unsurprisingly, your answer depends on a lot of subjective factors: whether you value international achievement (i.e, World Cups and Copa Americas) over club success (i.e., Champions Leagues and Spanish Primeras); whether you think the fact that Messi plays in a footballing epoch that also features four or five of the best creative midfielders ever, and that at least two of those creative midfielders play for Messi’s team, somehow undermines his achievements because, you know, my grandma could score with Iniesta and Xavi feeding balls to her; whether you’re just as much in love with Maradona’s angst-ridden, rebellious off-field behavior as you are with his footballing genius and feel that Messi’s undisputed genius isn’t enough to compensate for his total lack of charisma; and so on.
What’s interesting about those questions is how they start out as statistics-driven, “modern” sports debates – “This graph clearly demonstrates Messi’s superiority in the little-known Goals Scored On Tuesday Evenings metric” – before circling back to the traditional “when I was a lad” anecdotes that serve the dual purposes of intimidating younger fans (well, those younger fans intimidated by beer bellies and half-baked tales of terrace adventure) and providing the emotional context that all sports debates inevitably depend upon.
Needless to say, since 2008, about the time Messi established himself as a contender in the Maradona-Pele-CR7-Cruyff-Zidane argument, sports writers have dedicated plenty of copy to this debate and its various sub-debates. Wondolowski – age 29, a fantastic goal scorer but no footballing genius – isn’t Messi, or anything remotely like Messi, and his statistical quest hasn’t attracted nearly as much attention as Messi’s 300 goals have. But because Wondo’s goal scoring has always carried a whiff of excitement – and because when Major League Soccer senses the potential for excitement, it milks that excitement until only the bare husk of the excitement remains – the story’s become a really big deal – at least in the admittedly rather tiny world of MLS.
A couple of days before Wondolowski’s match against Portland, a game in which he needed to score just one goal to tie and two to break the aforementioned record, current record holder Roy Lassiter told reporters that he planned to root against Wondo, because this record was his only shot at immortality. Part of you wants to sympathize with Lassiter. After all, outside American soccer circles, no one – and I mean NO ONE – knows who he is, and the only reason that most people inside those circles do starts and ends with the goal-scoring record. If Lassiter were to lose it, to Wondo or to someone else, he would float slowly into the whirlpool of nothingness that most American players call home, particularly those Americans who played in that awkward period between the glamour of USA 1994 and the genuine progress of South Korea and Japan 2002. On the other hand, a bigger part of you wants Wondolowski to succeed, because, and this goes back to the earlier point about emotional context, in sports, the right to say “I was there” – at the game, in front of my TV, checking live text, whatever – is priceless. Everyone wants to witness history in the hope that, someday, history will decide an argument in a pub or on a message board against a young, arrogant and obnoxiously good-looking opponent who won’t have witnessed enough history to respond in kind.
MLS was savvy enough to fly Lassiter to Portland for the crucial game, and, as you can imagine, TV reporters tried to gauge the former Tampa Bay Mutiny forward’s mood/reaction/degree-of- enmity-towards-Wondo whenever possible.
For the last hour or so, I’ve been checking the Internet for updates on the Portland-San Jose game, which – since San Jose have already qualified for the playoffs and Portland have already been eliminated – has nothing riding on it other than #Wondo. A few minutes ago, Steven Lenhart (who else?) won a questionable penalty, and Chris Wondolowski stepped up to the spot. Wondo, as he has done so many times this season, smashed the ball into the bottom corner. Twitter drew breath. A horde of San Jose players piled on top of their immortal teammate, who looked way happier than he should have looked, considering he’d just scored the opening goal in a meaningless game.
 “He (Lenhart) ruins everything. He ruined Christmas and it’s only October” – Random commenter, Soccer By Ives.
 Twenty-six going into Saturday’s regular season finale against the Portland Timbers, one fewer than the (seemingly unsurpassable) MLS record Roy Lassiter set in 1996.
 Awarded to the team that accumulates the most points during the regular season.
 The Olympics are even worse. NBC actually cuts back on sporting coverage to make room for more of the personal stuff.
 KICK GENERAL DECENCY OUT OF FOOTBALL!!!!
 When you’re competing in the same market as the NFL, the MLB, the NBA, and, depressingly, NASCAR, guys as essentially unambitious as Landon Donovan become your figureheads, and stories as essentially unimportant as Chris Wondolowski’s become VERY, VERY IMPORTANT.
 Now defunct. As far as I know, the Mutiny’s ultimate demise had nothing to do with skulls and crossbones, Odysseus’ crew, or Treasure Island.