(Disclaimer - The 1996-1999 MLS seasons did not feature draws. Tied games were decided by overtime and occasionally, penalty shootouts, resulting in situations where games that would currently end in ties became wins.)
This past weekend saw the final matches of the 2012 regular season played out. As was widely expected, San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski scored his 27th goal of the season to tie the record Roy Lassiter set way back in the league’s 1996 inaugural season, and his San Jose Earthquakes side raised the 2012 Supporters’ Shield.
Wondo’s magical year is indisputably the finest individual season ever laid down by a major league soccer player -- unlike Lassiter, Wondolowski was was running riot over a mature, demanding league, rather than unpolished gaggles of green players mostly just glad to have a job. There are no longer MLS players splitting time between soccer practice and gigs on TV soap operas, to name one example.
But while this may be Wondo’s annus mirabilis - and may the soccer gods have mercy on the anguished souls of defenders if this isn’t his best - the question of where this San Jose team ranks against the best MLS sides ever has to be asked.
Looking at points per game, the San Jose Earthquakes are largely typical of recent Shield winners. Their 1.94 ppg is about the norm for regular-season champs. LA posted a pair of 1.97 marks as it claimed the Shield in the two previous campaigns, while the ‘08 and ‘09 Columbus Crew weren’t far behind with 1.90 and 1.63 averages.
These Quakes are not a great defensive side, either. They gave up goals. Plenty of them. The 2012 Quakes were the worst shield winners, defensively, since 2003. They allowed 1.26 goals per game, the third-worst total of any playoff-bound team, and well behind the astounding 0.79 mark set by Shield runner-up and Eastern Conference top seed Sporting Kansas City (a mark that bests every Shield winner ever, in fact. In a different year, we’d probably be talking about Sporting as the best defensive team in MLS history.).
What makes the 2012 Earthquakes special is that they won the Shield by playing attacking soccer, seeking to outscore opponents rather than score and sit on a lead (looking at you, Bruce Arena). They were the first Shield winner in over a decade to average more than two goals per game, and only the second to do so after overtime (which gave teams extra ticks on the clock and encouraged them to go for broke) was scrapped.
What’s more, the nature of their goals was fairly dizzying. In nine separate games, the Quakes scored an equalizer and/or a winner in or after the 90th minute of play, earning 13 points from the dying moments of matches.
The attack was spearheaded by three American strikers, a triumvirate of late bloomers all fated to post career numbers in the same magical year. 29-year-old Wondolowski -- deemed the 89th best rookie in the 2005 draft class, passed over in four straight expansion drafts -- had the best season an MLS player has ever had, period. 31-year-old Alan Gordon, who had a spell where he bounced around between four teams in two seasons, scored 13 times in just 1297 minutes. 26-year-old Steven Lenhart had 10 goals (a career high), and his physical gamesmanship was an integral asset to the Quakes style of play.
Add in fantastic seasons from other contributors -- Martin Chavez’s 13 assists, the indian summer of San Jose original Ramiro Corrales, stellar seasons from unheralded names like Justin Morrow, Steven Beitashour, Sam Cronin, and Rafael Baca -- and the Quakes built a cheap winner with an infectious team spirit.
“Goonies never say die,” quipped Lenhart after another comeback win in May, this time against the Galaxy in the California Clasico. The curly-haired battering ram of a forward not only coined the "Goonies" tag, he came to epitomize its meaning -- outsiders, misfits, underdogs, who triumphed through sheer force of will and pluck and boundless, irrepressible energy. Guys that didn’t lose, but rather just ran out of time to score yet another improbable goal.
The Goonies ran roughshod over opponents in that classic American rough and tumble style: speed, strength, set pieces, goals so inexplicably dramatic you just had to sit back and laugh at the absurdity of it all. You weren’t going to understand why the Quakes did what they did, so you might as well enjoy the ride.
At times, it seemed reckless, all that swashbuckling, last-gasp heroics stuff, but they managed to buck the recent trend of defensive-minded sides dominating the league.
The style didn’t win over everyone, however.
“To be honest, this game wasn't even fun,” said Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, after his team twice gave up leads on set pieces in its 2-2 draw with San Jose on Oct. 21. “I think those guys are a bunch of jokes, the way they play the game. It was just obnoxious. And, you know, it wasn't even fun out there. It was terrible.
“It all starts when the ball's on the other side of the field, and you're just running and all of a sudden you get blindsided,” he continued. “You just get checked by Lenhart or something. It's just dumb [expletive] like that happens every time, and that's not the way the game should be played. It's embarrassing.”
Despite the sour grapes of opponents, the 2012 Quakes, with their all-for-one-one-for-all ethos, contagious underdog likeability, and undoubted flair for the dramatic, have won over the public. Head coach Frank Yallop is the odds-on favorite for coach of the year, having built the best team in the league on a shoestring budget (Wondolowski’s $300,000 price tag the only base salary is above $200,000, and most would agree, that’s the biggest bargain in the league). Wondo himself will garner so many MVP votes, he could probably roll over the balance and just pick up next year’s award while he’s at it.
So are the 2012 Quakes the best MLS side ever? Probably not. Most have had better defensive records. The 1998 Galaxy team, led by Cobi Jones’ finest season in MLS, scored more goals and picked up more points in fewer games.
But for sheer entertainment value, there has never been a team quite like these Quakes. Best ever? Nope. Most fun? Definitely.
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