Lenhart, Gonzalez rekindle heightened rivalry in West semis

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A puzzled look came over the face of San Jose Earthquakes forward Steven Lenhart as he pondered a third consecutive question about Omar Gonzalez, Gonzalez's impact on the LA Galaxy defense and his apparent success in his only appearance against the Quakes this season.

“I feel like you’re assuming [Gonzalez] is really dominant,” Lenhart said to the reporter. “I feel like you’re wanting me to assume these things or something. I’m not comfortable assuming these things.”

Be that as it may, Lenhart might have to get used to it when the Quakes and Galaxy start their Western Conference Semifinal on Sunday (9 pm ET; ESPN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

Gonzalez, the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year, missed both of LA’s first two regular-season matches against the Quakes, games in which San Jose roared back from two goals down to win.

But in the teams’ 2-2 tie on Oct. 21, the Galaxy’s defense -- anchored by Gonzalez in the middle -- held San Jose to just two shots in the first half. And when MLSsoccer.com columnist Matt Doyle broke down 12 head-to-head battles between Gonzalez and Lenhart during those 45 minutes, it was a clean sweep for the 6-foot-5 Gonzalez, one of few players in the MLS who can hold his own physically against the tenacious Lenhart.

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San Jose responded with post-halftime tactical adjustments, pulling Lenhart away from Gonzalez’s orbit and using him to create chances in other areas of the pitch. Lenhart and Gonzalez only matched up for one other header, and it turned out to be a big one; Gonzalez was whistled for a foul a few yards outside LA’s box, and Marvin Chávez bent the 25-yard free kick over the wall and just inside the near post for San Jose’s first goal.

“I think Omar did a good job on Lenny, especially in the first half, but we changed our tactics a little bit and did a nice job,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “Lenny was getting away from him, which he has to do, because it’s a matchup against a guy 6-4, 6-5, very good in the air and a good player. I thought Lenny did a good job of getting away from him more in the second half.”

Quakes forward Alan Gordon didn’t think the numbers accurately told the whole tale of the Lenhart-Gonzalez battle.

“I think Lenny’s plenty capable of taking care of that matchup,” Gordon told MLSsoccer.com. “I don’t think you can single out that matchup and say anybody won or didn’t win. We didn’t have the best game and Lenny wasn’t getting much support up there. We’ve got to do a better job of being balanced and giving him some support. He was battling. If were winning the second balls, then you would say that Lenny won the battle. But because we weren’t picking up any second balls, it looks like Omar won, or whatever you want to say. It’s a team thing.”

All of this would make compelling enough grist for the strategic war that Yallop and LA coach Bruce Arena will wage Sunday in Carson and reprise Wednesday in Santa Clara. There’s an added element to the equation, however: Gordon, who missed San Jose’s last two matches due to a sprained right ankle, is potentially ready for duty at the Home Depot Center.

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Pairing Gordon and Lenhart -- something the Quakes have done to great effect, if sparingly -- would presumably give San Jose the ability to once again play into the heart of LA’s defense, regardless of Gonzalez’s presence.

“If we have Alan and Lenny up there, they’re a handful,” Yallop said. “Anytime they’re on the field together, good things tend to happen.”

Gordon said earlier this week that he’s ready to go, although Yallop played more coy on the subject. Using Gordon could be more likely if Simon Dawkins, who started just one of San Jose’s last four regular-season matches with ankle and fitness issues, isn’t available to man the left wing. That’s the spot 27-goalscorer Chris Wondolowski would slide into if Gordon and Lenhart teamed up top.

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com.