Former Dynamo striker a marked man come Saturday
The Dynamo are on the brink of home history but it's hard to imagine a tougher challenge to the unbeaten streak than the visit of the Supporters' Shield champions with a reigning MLS Most Valuable Player in their ranks.
Houston hosts the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday fresh from a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps at BBVA Compass Stadium that extended the home unbeaten run to 33 games in all competitions - a mere 90 minutes shy of Real Salt Lake's all-time mark.
The Earthquakes also won last weekend, beating the Seattle Sounders 1-0 courtesy of a superb goal from Chris Wondolowski. While the quality of the long-distance strike was unusual, the identity of the scorer was not. Regular Wondolowski goals are as inevitable as death, taxes and refereeing controversies.
The California native was crowned league MVP last November after a 27-goal campaign that tied Roy Lassiter's single-season record. To put Wondolowski's scoring tear in perspective, the next-most prolific marksman in 2012, Kenny Cooper, grabbed 18 goals for the New York Red Bulls. And the Western Conference's bottom club, Chivas USA, managed to locate the net only 24 times in MLS all year.
"San Jose's a good team, they proved it last season. So it's going to be a good challenge for us, a good test and we're looking forward to it," Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark told HoustonDynamo.com.
Clark knows Wondolowski well: they are former teammates. Both 30-year-olds played for San Jose in 2005 and then for the Dynamo in the franchise's early years. Clark left after the 2009 season for a spell in Germany with Eintracht Frankfurt while Wondolowski joined the reborn Earthquakes in June 2009.
"It's going to be good playing against an old teammate," said Clark. "He's done well for himself and he's certainly going to be a marked man this year and come Saturday, so we're looking forward to the challenge."
Wondolowski has become one of American soccer's most-feared predators since he returned to California. While conventional wisdom suggests that strikers will decline when they approach their thirties, Wondolowski has improved with age.
"He's a perfect example of where hard work can get you," said Clark. "I think every player has their moment when they break out. I think in this game, just like in life, everything's about timing."
That maxim applied to Saturday's comeback win over the Whitecaps . Down a goal at the break after Darren Mattocks scored against the run of play, a Clark cross found Giles Barnes for the equalizer in the 55th minute. The Dynamo sensed the momentum shift and seized the moment, with Warren Creavalle bundling in the winner only seven minutes later.
Victory was the ideal rebound for the Dynamo after defeats to Santos Laguna and FC Dallas on the road. Clark feels it was the kind of determined and unruffled performance that shows precisely why the Dynamo are one match from equaling Salt Lake's impressive tally.
"I thought we had the majority of chances in the first half, I thought we had the better play. It was just unfortunate that we did get down 1-0 but it was good that we bounced back, kept our focus, kept our mentality throughout the whole game and it showed. I think the result was deserved," he said.
A repeat this weekend and the Dynamo will earn not only three points, but a place in the record books. "It's definitely something we want to keep alive and keep going," said Clark.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian as well as SI.com.