FOX Soccer Exclusive
Steven Lenhart shedding bad boy image
|Saturday, April 28|
|New York||1-0||New England||Recap|
|R. Salt Lake||3-2||Toronto||Recap|
|LA Galaxy||1-1||FC Dallas||Recap|
|More: MLS| Standings|Stats|
The San Jose Earthquakes have been the surprise of the 2012 MLS season, and for all the players who have played key roles in the team’s early success, you could argue that no player has had a bigger impact on the team’s surprising results than Steven Lenhart.
That may sound outrageous considering that San Jose also boasts Chris Wondolowski, but Lenhart’s two late goals to give the Earthquakes a 2-1 victory against Philadelphia on Saturday were just the latest major impact he has made.
Known more for his big, bushy blonde hair and for being as close to a villain among MLS fans as anybody not named Rafael Marquez, Lenhart’s trademark is his ability to get under opponents’ skin. It’s a bit unfortunate because that label makes it easy to forget that Lenhart can actually play.
“On the field, you’d think he’d be a head case with some of the things he does,” said Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop. “When you watch him play, you think he’s nuts, but off the field he’s quiet and unassuming.”
Whether it’s the Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde sides of his persona, Lenhart has found a variety of ways to help the Earthquakes win. Consider the team’s most recent victories against Western Conference powers Seattle and Real Salt Lake. Against the Sounders, Lenhart drew the decisive penalty on what looked like a questionable call, after he fell over the leg of Sounders defender Marc Burch.
Then you have the RSL game, during which Lenhart got in behind the RSL defense with the ball only to slow up and seek out a streaking Jamison Olave. Lenhart initiated contact with Olave, grabbed him by the shorts and proceeded to the ground. Lenhart pulled off the ruse perfectly, convincing the referee to issue Olave a red card that left RSL down two men. San Jose scored a pair of late goals to earn a precious overtime victory and move into sole possession of first place.
The two incidents, coupled with any number of rough moments involving Lenhart and opposing defenders, have only served to magnify Lenhart’s image as the Bill Laimbeer of American soccer. Laimbeer was notorious for antagonizing opponents, and pushing the limit of fair play as an NBA star who won two championships with the Detroit Pistons. He mastered the art of pushing his opponents' buttons and became the most hated player in the NBA as a result of his behavior.
Nobody in MLS comes close to mastering the art of annoying opponents the way Lenhart has. He relishes hard challenges, never shies away from contact and will never miss a chance to tweak an opponent. Sometimes those moments result in forcing mistakes by frustrated opponents; but can also take attention away from Lenhart’s actual qualities as a player.
“He’s one of those guys that if you’re playing against him you hate it, but if he’s on your team then you love the guy,” Wondolowski said of Lenhart. “He’s always battling and he really likes getting reactions out of people, like if someone fouls him he’ll try to hold their hand to piss them off, and that stuff really gets to people.”
On Saturday, Lenhart reminded us that he can also be a scoring threat. He beat a stingy Philadelphia defense twice to drive home a pair of beautiful Marvin Chavez crosses in a 2-1 victory that kept the Earthquakes in first place in the West. In the process, he reminded everyone in MLS that he’s more than just an on-field pest.
“I don’t think he really gets the credit he deserves,” said Yallop. “What people see is him running around elbowing guys and getting the (opposing) crowd riled up, but he’s got some good stuff to his game.”
Yallop added: “He runs the channels well, holds the ball up well, he’s very good in the air. He got on a very good run last year, scoring five in eight games, but I think once he gets settled in he’s going to be able to score goals in our league.”
Last season, Lenhart didn’t get a chance to really make his mark on his first season in San Jose. Injuries limited him to 14 games, but he still managed five goals and three assists in what wound up being a dismal season for the Earthquakes.
Things are much different for the 2012 Earthquakes. Their attack is playing well, their defense has been one of the stingiest in the league, and Lenhart has played a major part in the success even though he has once again been dealing with some injury concerns.
If Lenhart can stay healthy and can keep from turning his villainous on-field persona into a distraction he could enjoy a breakout campaign in an encouraging 2012 Earthquakes season. Lenhart won’t win any popularity contests with opponents or opposing fans around the league. Nevertheless, if he keeps helping the team rack up points, San Jose players and fans will keep on loving Major League Soccer’s true ‘bay boy.’
Here are some other developments from Week 8 in MLS:
TORONTO FC DROPS TO 0-7
The nightmare season being endured by Toronto FC reached a new, more painful low on Saturday after a stoppage-time winner from Jonny Steele gave Real Salt Lake a 3-2 victory and officially pinned TFC with the worst start to a season in MLS history.
Toronto joined the 1999 Kansas City Wizards as the only teams to start the season winless in seven games. Even that Wizards team had some draws in regulation, which turned into losses in the old MLS shootout format.
TFC’s latest loss only adds to the pressure on head coach Aron Winter, who is looking more and more like the leading candidate to be the first coach fired this MLS season. With Vancouver and Montreal both enjoying better than expected success this season, there is even more pressure on TFC management to turn things around.
Toronto returns to action on Wednesday in the Canadian Championships with a match against Montreal. A loss there could be the final straw for Winter, and even if they earn a result a tough match against red-hot D.C. United awaits on Saturday.
TROUBLE IN TIMBER COUNTRY
Folks in Portland had plenty of reason for optimism when the 2012 season began. A team that went close to a playoff berth in its expansion season was bringing back all its key players, as well as adding a proven goal scorer like Kris Boyd. A playoff berth and strong second season in MLS seemed like a reasonable expectation.
Two months into the new season and the Timbers are in crisis mode. The club is in last place in the West after yet another late-game collapse. They have allowed multiple late goals in their past four losses, an astonishing rate of late-game futility that is threatening to bury Portland in the stacked Western Conference before we even get to the summer.
You can certainly argue that the Timbers have played better than their 2-5-1 record suggests (this is, after all, the team that handed Sporting Kansas City their only loss of the season just last week). They have had some questionable calls go against them, such as a bad offside call that cost them a goal in a loss to the LA Galaxy, and most recently a handball penalty against Montreal that sparked the Impact’s late rally.
Some shaky calls aside, the Timbers can only blame themselves for failing to generate more goals when they have had control of matches. They also have nobody to blame for some awful defending late in matches.
With no imminent transfer window to make changes, John Spencer’s squad will need to figure things out quickly or risk falling too far behind the playoff pack in the West to recover. It is still early, but Portland can’t afford many more late-game collapses or else the dreams of a Timber post-season could wind up being put off for another season.
This Week’s Best in MLS
Player of the Week: Maicon Santos. The journeyman forward continued to play like one of the best acquisitions of the off-season, registering his fifth and sixth goals of the season in D.C. United’s 3-2 win against Houston. Santos notched the opening goal before heading home the game-winning score to boost D.C. United’s unbeaten streak to seven matches.
Rookie of the Week: Ryan Meara. After playing well on several occasions, the Red Bulls rookie goalkeeper was finally rewarded with a shutout in what was arguably his best game to date. Meara made five saves in New York’s 1-0 victory against New England, a win that came despite the Red Bulls missing three starting defenders and the team’s top back-up defender in Stephen Keel.
Team of the Week: D.C. United. Improved their unbeaten streak to seven matches with a 3-2 win against Houston by tearing apart a Houston defense that had allowed just five goals in their previous seven matches combined.
Comeback of the Week: LA Galaxy. Bruce Arena’s side looked destined for another shocking home loss before veteran forward Pat Noonan salvaged Saturday’s match vs. FC Dallas by scoring a stoppage-time equalizer in the Galaxy’s 1-1 draw. Noonan came on in the 81st minute and slotted home a Chad Barrett pass in the second minute of stoppage time.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.
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