26 Thoughts: Chris Wondolowski becomes a super sub; Tim Melia's penalty kick mastery; MLS quarterfinal predictions

Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 26 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

And then there were eight. What began as a 26-team — no, sorry, a 24-team — tournament when it kicked off minus COVID-19-stricken FC Dallas and Nashville SC is now down to the quarterfinals, which begin Thursday night when the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City meet in Orlando (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes).

After a number of surprises in the group stage, with big-spending clubs such as Atlanta United and the LA Galaxy failing to advance to the knockout phase and usual bottom-feeders like FC Cincinnati and the Vancouver Whitecaps advancing, some degree of order returned for the round of 16, with most of the favorites surviving the cut.

But of the teams still in contention for the MLS is Back Tournament title (and the CONCACAF Champions League berth that comes with it), none is a bigger surprise than the San Jose Earthquakes. With 11 goals scored through their first four games in Central Florida — including Monday’s nutty 5-2 win that eliminated Real Salt Lake — the Quakes have been the second-most prolific team in the competition, behind only tourney favorites LAFC.

Chris Wondolowski, the longtime face of San Jose soccer and MLS all-time top scorer, didn’t start that match. In fact, he hasn’t been in Matias Almeyda’s starting 11 yet this season. Yet Wondolowski, 37, might be the happiest guy on the Quakes’ roster seeing how his team, which missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, has progressed in the Argentine coach’s second season at the helm.

“There are growing pains anytime you learn a new system,” Wondolowski, in an interview with Yahoo Sports this week, said of adjusting to Almeyda’s high-press, man-marking scheme. “Now, we know all the ins and outs of it, and once you see the success, then you start believing in it. I think now everyone on the team really believes.”

Chris Wondolowski smiles and celebrates with teammates during a game.
MLS all-time top scorer Chris Wondolowski (right) doesn't start for the San Jose Earthquakes anymore, but he's still producing goals in what could be his final season in the league. (Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

26 Thoughts

1. Wondo’s playing time may have diminished in 2020, but he’s still getting as many scoring chances as he ever has, and has scored in each of the Quakes’ last three games. That Almeyda likes his forwards and midfielders to press high up the field hasn’t hurt. “He wants us to win our battles and not give the opponent time to think, so when we win the ball, it’s in a good spot,” Wondolowski said. “It’s an ideal situation for me. I kind of get to trigger the press, and it puts me in position to get some great opportunities. Sometimes you don’t get as many touches, but you get better looks at goal.” Clearly. In just 60 minutes off the bench at the tourney, Wondo has put four shots on target. Three went in.

2. The ability to maintain possession close to your own goal under pressure has become standard in Europe’s top leagues in recent years. Elite squads like Liverpool and Manchester City use their technically proficient goalkeepers as passing outlets as a matter of course. It’s something we’ve been seeing more and more in MLS, and not always with good results. (A mixup between Montreal Impact center back Rod Fanni and keeper Clement Diop gifted Orlando City’s Tesho Akindele a winner last week.) But while the Quakes’ possession numbers have skyrocketed since Almeyda arrived, it’s interesting that he instructs his players to be little more careful in their own end.

3. “We like having possession but not in our final third,” Wondolowski said. “Some teams are very comfortable with the ball back there. Compared to those teams, we’re not. We’d prefer to have it a little bit further up the field.”

4. Many players struggle to adapt to a changing role as they age, not least strikers. But Wondolowski insists he has no problem coming off the bench at this stage of his career. It helps that he has experience; 20 of his 35 appearances for the U.S. men’s national team came as a substitute.

“I love it,” he said. “Especially now with five substitutes [during the tournament], defenders are kind of hitting the wall around the 75th minute.”

5. The Earthquakes are the favorite to advance. But Minnesota United will present a stern test defensively when the teams meet on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes). The Loons are adept at counterattacking, and San Jose’s high-pressing leaves them particularly vulnerable to it. When the two played in March, Minnesota ran out 5-2 winners.

6. Coming into the season, Wondolowski was sure that the 2020 campaign — his 17th in MLS, all but four of which the Bay Area native has spent with his hometown club — would be his last. Then the pandemic hit. Now, Wondolowski isn’t sure what he’s going to do next year.

“Having no idea what’s happening after this, how many games or what the plan is, I just don’t know right now. I thought I did coming into this year, but now it’s changed. I think I’m going to reevaluate at the end of the season. But I’m having a lot of fun right now. I’m still enjoying it.”

7. Among the things he’s enjoyed the most is bonding with his younger teammates — something that he wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to, at least to the same degree, if not for the extended stay inside the MLS bubble. When the veteran entered the match against RSL with nine minutes to go, it was alongside 16-year-old homegrown forward Cade Cowell.

8. “I’m the same age as his parents,” Wondo cracked. “I know nothing about TikTok and all that stuff that these guys talk about. I do enjoy their perspective. It’s refreshing to be around them. I love laughing and joking with them, even though I know I have the gray hair and I’m the old guy and I’m grumpy more often than not.”

9. I couldn’t let Wondo go without asking about the gigantic, 1990s-style Adidas jersey he’s been rocking in Florida. The retro look is a nod to the league’s 25th anniversary. Still, at a time when most forwards prefer slim-fitting versions that are difficult for opposing defenders to grab, the baggy shirt stands out.

10. “I’ve always worn size large — I swear these jerseys are just bigger,” Wondolowski laughed. “It’s massive on me, so I have to tuck it in, which just makes it billow even more. But I’m very superstitious, so now I’m keeping it.”

11. Three of the eight round of 16 matches were settled via penalty shootout, including SKC’s victory over Vancouver. Sporting keeper Tim Melia was the hero in that one, making two saves and adding to his own legend as the best spot-kick stopper in league history. The native New Yorker has saved an astounding 10 of 24 PKs over his 11-year MLS career. He’s never lost a shootout in five tries.

A close shot of Tim Melia during a game.
Sporting Kansas City keeper Tim Melia's reputation as the best penalty kick specialist in MLS has only grown in Orlando. (Scott Winters/Getty Images)

12. “You just kind of grab any piece of information you can,” Melia told me this week. “You look at how a player is lining up, how fast they approach the ball, are they looking somewhere,” he said. “You consider the score, is it a home or away game, has the player scored recently — you kind of put those variables together and make the best educated guess.”

13. What are some of the tells? “There’s players that try to look you off, but other players actually stare at where they’re going. Some players stare at one side and go the opposite way. Some guys peek when they put the ball down. Every player does something different,” he said.

14. The 29-year-old was quick to point out that he gets help with his homework from SKC goalkeeper coach Alec Dufty. “Alec does a really good job preparing us with that information,” said Melia, the 2017 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. “We do talk about it.”

15. There’s no question that Sporting is the underdog against a Philly team that arrived in Orlando as a dark horse to win the event and has been even more impressive than advertised. “They’ve looked better than us,” Melia said. “They’ve been one of the really organized teams here. And [Andre] Blake for me has been the best goalkeeper of the tournament.”

16. Tough as the Union will be, in a way Kansas City already feels like it’s playing with house money. SKC’s place in the competition was in serious doubt before it had played a match after a player tested positive for COVID-19 three days before the club’s opener. The news dropped after Nashville and FCD had already been forced to withdraw.

17. “A lot of us were really nervous,” SKC veteran Graham Zusi told me. “I think we assumed it was only a matter of time before it went through the team, like Dallas and Nashville. I think, for sure, that played a part in our mental capacity. That first week was a tough one. We were all in our rooms, our meals delivered to our door, just basically locked away waiting for those positive tests to come back. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. I think it says a lot about how our team handled themselves.”

18. The distraction sure looked like a factor in SKC’s first match, though, when it conceded two stoppage-time goals and lost to Minnesota 2-1. Sporting has won all five of its other games so far in 2020.

19. Peter Vermes’ club has been so consistent for so long, but 2019 was just not SKC’s year. Kansas City, which won an MLS Cup and three U.S. Open Cups last decade, missed the playoffs for the first time since changing its name from the Kansas City Wizards after the 2010 season. Now that some time has passed, I was curious what Melia and Zusi thought went wrong.

“If you look at the beginning of last year and the Champions League run that we had, it seemed like we were flying. But I think the way we bowed out of that tournament took a toll on us,” Zusi said, referencing the 5-0 aggregate win over Liga MX side Toluca in the round of 16 and the 10-2 aggregate loss to another Mexican club, Monterrey, in the semifinals. “Every team has lulls, but what made our team consistent over the years was we never let those lulls last too long. We always fought our way out of it. That didn’t happen last year. We were worn out mentally and physically, and we could never climb out of that hole that we dug for ourselves.”

Said Melia: “It came down to a little bit of a lack of confidence. We’ve always been a really good defensive team, and we got away from that.”

20. This season — and now this tournament — has been an opportunity to turn the page, especially with no assurances that the MLS season will be able to resume in local markets later this summer as planned because of the ongoing health crisis.

“This [tourney] is the only thing that’s guaranteed at this point,” Melia said. “What’s in front of us is Philly. Hopefully, there’s another game after that.”

21. It’s not hard to understand why the New York Red Bulls let 35-year-old club legend Bradley Wright-Phillips leave for LAFC over the winter. It also shouldn’t be surprising that Wright-Phillips has taken full advantage of the opportunity with Bob Bradley’s high-flying side, scoring three goals and adding an assist in 243 minutes in Orlando.

Bradley Wright-Phillips with the ball looks for a teammate.
Bradley Wright-Phillips has three goals and an assist in his first four games with LAFC. (Joe Petro/Getty Images)

22. Here’s hoping the English striker is healthy and available for Friday’s contest against Orlando City (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1/UniMas). Wright-Phillips left LAFC’s 4-1 rout of defending MLS Cup champ Seattle at halftime shortly after setting up Latif Blessing’s strike

23. It’s prediction time. And as real as I think Sporting Kansas City (and its new Israeli attacker Gadi Kinda) is this year, I’m still not sure they get past red-hot Philadelphia on Thursday. It will be close, though. I’ll say Philly ekes out the victory, 1-0.

24. With or without Wright-Phillips, its difficult to see LAFC losing to Orlando City, no matter how much Oscar Pareja has improved the Lions in his maiden season. I’ll go 2-0 for Bradley’s team, with Diego Rossi scoring both goals and padding his lead atop the scoring chart.

25. San Jose may have gotten thumped by the Loons earlier this year, but momentum is huge in a tournament format. I think this favors the Quakes. In a wide-open thriller, I’ll take Wondo and Co. 3-2.

26. New York City FC and the Portland Timbers will contest the fourth and last quarterfinal in Saturday’s nightcap (10:30 p.m. ET, FS1/TUDN). Have to think NYCFC has the edge after thumping Toronto FC earlier this week, especially after the Timbers struggled to beat Cincinnati. The Pigeons win 2-0.

More from Yahoo Sports: