By Ridge Mahoney
Roy Lassiter, whose single-season scoring record has been "stalked" by Chris Wondolowski this season, is turning the tables.
Lassiter was on hand Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium as Wondolowski scored a goal to close within one of the record 27 goals compiled in 1996, and he will also be present in Portland Saturday as Wondo attempts to equal or break that mark in the season finale.
“I think for anybody that’s going to break that record, they have to have the buy-in from their teammates,” says Lassiter, who scored 88 MLS regular season goals playing for Tampa Bay, D.C. United, Miami, and Kansas City from 1996 to 2002.
“You can see on the field his teammates really look for him. That’s a good thing, too. At the end of the day, Wondo is trying to do everything for his team. He’s trying to win games. Scoring goals is his job.”
Only two other players – Stern John (1998) and Mamadou Diallo (2000) – have come as close to equaling Lassiter’s record, which he set while a member of the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny, which also employed Diallo during his near-miss season. Unwittingly, Lassiter had set the bar so high no one, including himself, could equal it, which cast a strange cloud over his career even though he helped D.C. United win the Concacaf Champions Cup and Interamericana Cup in 1998 and the MLS Cup the following year.
He never came close to his own record, though he did manage back-to-back seasons of 18 goals in 1998 and 1999. (No matter how many goals Wondo winds up with Saturday, his next target is Lassiter’s mark of 73 goals scored in four consecutive seasons.)
“That’s nothing easy, either,” Lassiter says of chasing your own record. “If Wondo is able to get this record, he’ll be chasing himself. That becomes very hard and I had to do that for a long time. I had to chase my own record and that was the hardest thing to do, because there were no records to chase at the very beginning and then to chase my own was very tough.”
Since Wondolowski began inching within range of the record, Lassiter has been sought out for comments and interviews. He’s been effusive in his praise, and was so again Saturday night, after Wondo zinged two shots off the goalpost a minute apart, then fearlessly dove through a crowd on a corner kick to head an equalizer.
“He’s a player with great mobility and he’s got a good nose for goal, that’s for sure,” says Lassiter, 43, who has worked as a coach with various teams and clubs since retiring in 2002. “Having that and be able to play and have the wisdom to be farther away from goal and know what to do with the ball, is something special. There’s not a lot of players like him. He’s not just a box player.
“He wants to score and he’s very mobile. He doesn’t stand still. You’ll see him on the left, on the right, in the middle, in the midfield, up high with the last defender. And he’s patient. He won’t get into that space that he needs so early, and that’s the mark of a true striker. That’s very rare.”
One facet of their careers shared by the two goalscorers is limited national-team duty. Lassiter’s modest total of 30 caps was spread over eight years (1992-2000), during which he scored just four goals. Wondolowski has failed to score in eight U.S. appearances since debuting last year.
“It brings back a lot of memories and you don’t see a lot of players like that,” he says. “I’m just so baffled by why you don’t see him more with the national team, you know? You allow that player to come in and get accustomed to the pace and movement and all the different international teams. That confidence will come with playing games.”
Along with those components of determination, skill, toughness, and instinct required to score goals consistently at the pro level, Lassiter also notes how devoted Wondolowski is to his teammates, and they to him. Sometimes forwards are criticized for being too greedy, and sometimes they take heat for not being greedy at the right time, yet Lassiter believes the late-bloomer -- Wondolowski didn’t start consistently until Houston traded him to San Jose in 2009 at the age of 26 -- is a master at making the right choice of shot, pass, or extra touch.
When asked what he’ll say to Wondolowski if the record is equaled or topped, Lassiter replied, “Congratulations, first of all, because you have to keep a good train of thought, a good train of mind, and be willing to do whatever it takes for the team. You have to be selfless and not just worried about your own individual goals or efforts, and thinking about yourself and being egotistical.
“He’s a team player and you have to be a team player to get such feats as this.”