San Jose coach Frank Yallop remembers watching star forward Chris Wondolowski shine long before he ever put on an Earthquakes uniform. It was a Friday morning in May 2008, and Wondo zipped up and down the turf of the Earthquakes practice field in the shadow of Buck Shaw Stadium, the Quakes' home pitch on the campus of Santa Clara University. Enclosed by chain link and nestled between the university's parking structure and basketball arena, the field played host as the Houston Dynamo reserve squad faced off with San Jose's reserves -- a match of seemingly little significance.
He netted his first goal in typical Wondo fashion, placing himself near the box and tapping home a cross by teammate Ryan Brown for an early 1-0 lead. In the second half, Wondo showcased his speed by beating San Jose keeper Dan Benton to a long pass down the right wing, chipping in the final goal in Houston's 3-1 victory.
The contest was a simple reserve match, one in the minor leagues of the MLS, in which Wondo had been dominant for nearly three seasons. But it was also the match that Yallop recalled when he heard the forward's name mentioned in trade discussions the following season.
"That sticks in your mind. He looked really sharp and great around the box," said Yallop. "These [deals] come around every once in a while and you've got to pull the trigger quick."
San Jose lost the match, but they were big winners one year later. The Earthquakes pulled off the most successful trade in franchise history. The Quakes sent forward Cam Weaver to Houston in exchange for Wondo, an eventual Golden Boot winner and MLS All-Star, and a second-round draft selection, which was used on right back Steven Beitashour, a 2012 All-Star first-teamer. Just like that, San Jose reshaped its entire franchise.
When the U.S. Men's National Team beat Mexico on Aug. 15, their first-ever win on Mexican soil, both Wondo and Beitashour were on the roster.
The Quakes had been looking to deal Weaver, who has since scored 10 goals in four seasons with the Dynamo, and were excited when Wondolowski's name came up in discussions. Admittedly, they had no idea they were getting a player who would become the league's top striker. "When you make a trade you're just hoping he'll make an impact on the team," said Yallop. "[Both] short term and obviously long term if it works out that way."
Wondo had performed well in reserve matches, leading the Dynamo in scoring both in 2006 and 2007, but had seen little time with Houston's first squad. That was thanks, in large part, to a logjam at forward led by All-Star Brian Ching.
In San Jose, however, the California-native got the opportunity he needed. In his first year as a full-time starter in 2010, Wondo netted 19 goals, leading the Quakes to the playoffs and capturing his first Golden Boot. Last season, he scored 16 goals, tied for a league high.
"For him [getting to start] and taking off and then not looking back, it'll probably be the most remarkable thing I'll see in my professional career," said Quakes defender Jason Hernandez, who recalled playing against Wondo in reserve matches. "And it doesn't seem to be letting up."
Indeed, in 2012 Wondolowski is enjoying the best season of his career -- and possibly the best season of any striker in MLS history. Through 23 matches he's already recorded 18 goals. Nine matches remain. With San Jose playing its best soccer since 2005, and with a favorable back-end schedule, Wondo has a realistic shot at the MLS single-season scoring record of 27 goals set by Roy Lassiter of the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the league's inaugural 1996 campaign.
"It's a record that's been around for over 17 years and it's there for a reason. It's a pretty tough one to beat," said Wondolowski. "It's one of those team records. We create so many opportunities and especially the [type of] forward I am, I'm not creating a lot of those chances myself."
Enter Beitashour, a player emerging as one of the league's top defensive players. He's demonstrated an ability to create for teammates, and he led the Earthquakes with seven assists last season. A San Jose-native who attended San Diego State, he caught Yallop's eye before the 2010 MLS Super Draft because of his athleticism and ability to push forward from right back. After making the trade with Houston, San Jose nabbed Beitashour with the 30th overall pack, unknowingly solidifying the position for the foreseeable future.
It took nearly three years, but San Jose is cashing in on the benefits of Wondolowski-for-Weaver deal. And with the squad sitting alone atop the league table, the Earthquakes have their sights set on a deep playoff run.
At San Jose's new training facility, now located less than a mile from Santa Clara's campus, Wondolowski still scores goals against the Earthquakes. Only this time, it's San Jose assistant coach Ian Russell who plays between the posts. Long after each practice ends, Wondo peppers him with shots from all around the box: crosses, headers, volleys and penalties all find the back of the net. His teammates have taken notice.
"It's hard to be an offensive player and the end of training comes and you want to take off your boots, stretch and head back to the locker room when the guy who's scored the most goals the last two years is staying later and shooting more," said Hernandez. "If it's good enough for him, then it's definitely good enough for everyone else."
Added Beitashour, "We're aiming for the MLS Cup Final, so we're working to get there. Hopefully [Wondo] continues it. We need him."