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The best story of the 2010 MLS season is an unlikely goal-scoring king who earns such a humble salary ($48,000) that he coaches youth soccer on the side to make ends meet. He's Chris Wondolowski, the San Jose Earthquakes midfielder who only enhanced his folk-hero status last week by scoring the decisive goal to upset the New York Red Bulls and send the Quakes to the Eastern Conference final against the Colorado Rapids. It was Wondo's league-leading 19th strike of the year—no small feat for a player who had seven goals in his first five MLS seasons.
MLS is becoming a league of haves and have-nots, and the contrasts in San Jose's first-round triumph came straight from a Horatio Alger tale. New York had the league's two marquee new signings (Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez), MLS's highest payroll ($15.7 million) and a sparkling new $200 million stadium. The Earthquakes play in a cramped venue at Santa Clara University, have a payroll one fifth the size of New York's and feature a star, Wondolowski, who has spent much of his career playing for reserve teams on developmental contracts of less than $20,000. Says Wondolowski, 27, with a smile, "I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese."
The need to put food on the table led Wondo into youth coaching, which he thinks is partly behind his own skyrocketing improvement. Nearly every day after practice he'll drive a half hour to Danville, Calif., and spend three hours coaching teams of Under-11 and Under-13 boys. The work is hardly glamorous, but Wondo says he has fallen in love with coaching and plans to continue after his playing career. "It helped me start seeing the game in a different way," he argues. "You always see it on the field looking at your position rather than trying to understand what everyone's thinking."
Wondo's full-field approach has helped him forge lethal connections with his San Jose teammates, whether it's the creative Brazilian forward Geovanni (who's played for Barcelona, Benfica and Manchester City) or American midfielder Bobby Convey, whose inch-perfect cross found Wondo's head for the late playoff winner against New York. "Chris is a goal scorer," says Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop. "When it matters, he makes the runs and makes sure he finishes."
In that way Wondolowski, who is of Native American heritage, earns the name given him in a ceremony in Oklahoma several years ago: Warrior Coming Over the Hill. Until this magical season he's barely been on the radar of anyone, be it the Indian Nation or the U.S. national team. His MLS breakthrough may well have won him a call-up to the January camp for the U.S., which is still looking for an answer to its goal-scoring problems up top.
In the meantime, on Saturday in Colorado, Wondo will try to continue one of the most surprising rises in the 15-year history of MLS. "It's kind of a whirlwind," he says. "We like having a chip on our shoulder and being an underdog, and we don't want the season to end."
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Grant Wahl's Planet Fútbol covers the world every Wednesday at SI.com/soccer