When I first met Alan Gordon in 2007, he was a third-string L.A. Galaxy forward making $30,870 a year, coaching a girls youth team on the side (to make extra money) and living with two equally low-paid teammates in a dirty apartment that made a typical college dorm room look like a suite at the Four Seasons.
But Gordon was something else too: a symbol of all the hard-working (if unspectacular) U.S. players who form the backbone of Major League Soccer. As such, he was an ideal character to follow for my book, The Beckham Experiment, in the surreal locker-room laboratory that resulted when David Beckham (annual income: $50 million) joined the Galaxy in '07.
It didn't hurt that Gordon was a funny, self-deprecating guy who won Beckham's friendship and liked to tell amusing stories. When Beckham first met the team, Gordon was the one who said, "I'm Alan," then continued holding Beckham's handshake and said, "And you are?" When the Galaxy boarded a chartered jet on a road trip, Gordon looked at all the amenities and cracked to the flight attendant, "This is nicer than my apartment." When a teammate said he was staying single until Beckham arrived, the better to help him land a girlfriend, Gordon replied: "What are you gonna do, pull a little Beckham out of your pocket and say, 'See, look! Here I am!' No, dude."
If you can't already tell, Alan Gordon was one of my favorite people in the book. But if I was being honest, I wouldn't have predicted that five years later, at age 30, Gordon would become a goal-scoring machine for the San Jose Earthquakes, owner of the best record in MLS (15-6-5).
How impressive has Gordon been in 2012? He has 11 goals, more than doubling his previous career high of five. Only two players in the league have more non-penalty goals than Gordon: teammate Chris Wondolowski (15) and New York's Kenny Cooper (12). And, perhaps most stunningly, Gordon is averaging 1.10 goals per 90 minutes. In the 16-year history of MLS, only two players have ever scored 10 or more goals and averaged more than a goal per 90 minutes for an entire season: Columbus' Stern John (1.08) and Colorado's Wolde Harris (1.03), both in 1998.
"Now you're going to jinx me!" Gordon joked when I gave him the news this week. "I've really changed my work ethic, just kicked it up a notch. That's helped me stay healthy for once. I'm in the gym an hour before practice every day and staying late afterward, and I'm paying attention to what I eat."
A 6-foot-3 target forward with surprisingly soft feet, Gordon has found a good fit in San Jose, where he has been part of a lethal front line corps that includes Wondolowski (a league-high 18 goals) and Steven Lenhart (eight goals). The Quakes' knack for late goals and general lack of star power sparked Lenhart to say "Goonies never say die" after one game, and The Goonies nickname has stuck ever since. "We're just having fun being goofballs," Gordon says. "We don't take ourselves too seriously."
That said, Gordon's career wasn't a laughing matter in 2011, which he calls "the toughest year of my life." After seven seasons with the Galaxy, which made him the L.A.'s longest-tenured player, Gordon changed teams three times in 2010 and '11, moving to Chivas USA, Toronto and then San Jose as injuries kept him from seeing much of the field.
In the Bay Area, Gordon reunited with Frank Yallop, the two-time MLS Cup winner who had been his coach with the Galaxy when Beckham arrived in 2007. (Yallop was let go at the end of a circus-like season.) "I'm thrilled to be playing for Frank," says Gordon, who finds San Jose to have a completely different vibe than that '07 Galaxy team. "The Galaxy was really messed up in those days," he says. "There was a lot of pressure to win right away with David coming in, and it really wasn't fun for anybody. It's tough to play good soccer when you're under that kind of stress. We were being criticized as 'David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the Scrubs.'"
"Here [in San Jose] we're all a unit. I'm not talking specifically about David or Landon, but there's no one bigger than the team here."
For me, following Gordon's career as a mid-level MLS player in 2007 and '08 was often more interesting than tracking Beckham. When he got the chance to move into teammate Chris Albright's old apartment, Gordon was able to break his previous lease by telling the landlord he'd been traded, knowing the landlord wouldn't bother to check if he was still playing with the Galaxy. Even then, Gordon had to borrow $1,800 from his girlfriend to swing the new apartment and found a roommate on Craigslist. ("Let me tell you, that is the worst idea," he'd say later.) When Gordon got a salary bump from $30,870 to $72,504 at the end of '08, though, it was a cool moment that allowed him to drop his second job as a youth coach and focus on being, you know, a professional soccer player.
Four years later, Gordon says, "I am happier now than I've ever been in my entire life. My life has been changed by my wife and my two kids." Gordon's girlfriend, Sandi, became his wife in 2009, and they now have a 20-month-old son and an 8-month-old daughter. The family lives in Santa Cruz, where Gordon says they're able to go to the beach three times a week.
Gordon will earn $120,000 this season, according to MLS Players Union records, but even now his salary isn't guaranteed beyond 2012. "It's taken me a long time to get here," he says. "I can honestly say I've earned every dollar that I've made in the MLS. I definitely haven't been overpaid, that's for sure. Everything is year-to-year for a guy like me in the MLS. Let's not get confused here. I don't know what's happening in the next month, but it's always been that way for me, and it keeps me working hard. No matter how many goals I score or how much I get paid, I don't assume a thing. I'm just enjoying this moment. I have to keep doing the things that have gotten me here, and hopefully I can do them for a couple more years."
Gordon will be a big part of San Jose's push to win an MLS title, and he even got his first call-up to the U.S. national team for this month's historic 1-0 friendly win at Mexico. Even though he didn't get on the field, it was a sign that he's being recognized for his career year. When the call came to notify him of his selection, Gordon was at his niece's birthday party with his wife and kids. "Me and my wife looked at each other and were like, 'Is this real?'" he says. "It was beyond my wildest dreams. I never thought, especially at 30, that I would be called up for the national team."
You never know what might happen in sports. That's why we watch -- and why it's impossible not to smile when you see what's happened with Alan Gordon this season.