SAN JOSE, Calif. — When conflict arises, you’re supposed to turn the other cheek. But what if your opponent keeps cracking you in the lower back?
That’s the situation facing San Jose Earthquakes forward Steven Lenhart as he establishes himself with his new team.
At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Lenhart has always been seen as a physical specimen. But the Azusa Pacific product is getting banged around this year at a pace unmatched during his three previous MLS seasons — a trend that will likely accelerate during the month of June while he serves as the centerpiece of San Jose’s attack in the absence of 2010 Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski.
“There’s players that don’t really like contact, and there’s players that do,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “I think Steven likes it, to be honest. If he’s not been hit, tackled and smashed in a match, I don’t think he thinks he’s played. I think that’s his mentality, and I think that’s great. Every defender that plays against him goes, ‘Whoa. I’ve got a tough game Saturday because Lenhart’s playing.’ It’s got nothing to do with goals or skill. It’s, ‘He’s going to get me.’ And it’s great. It puts people off.”
Lenhart suffered three fouls last week against Houston, bringing his season total to 20, which puts him tied for 18th in the league with Vancouver’s Davide Chiumiento. However, Lenhart missed the Quakes’ first five matches due to arthroscopic knee surgery and then the unexpected death of his father.
When you convert the number of fouls suffered from a raw total to a per-minute basis, Lenhart passes everyone in front of him, save for New England’s Benny Feilhaber and Seattle’s Mauro Rosales. And at 3.27 fouls per 90 minutes, Lenhart is getting whacked (or at least earning a whistle) 70 percent more often than last season.
Even better, Lenhart has continued his trend of improving his ratio of fouls suffered to fouls committed. From his rookie season, Lenhart’s numbers in that category have been 0.43 (in 2008), 0.70 (’09) and 0.92 (’10). This year, Lenhart has finally cracked the break-even barrier, with a 1.43 mark.
Yallop doesn’t consider it a coincidence that since Lenhart moved into the starting lineup against Philadelphia on April 30, the Quakes are 3-1-2. Even though Lenhart has not been a goal-scoring machine — his 69th-minute diving header against Houston on Saturday was his first — he has been critical to goal creation for San Jose.
“We need that forceful presence up front, so everyone can kind of get some room,” Yallop said. “He does it great for us. He battles for every ball, he runs the channels, he fights, he scraps.”
Lenhart’s attitude also suits the kind of blue-collar ethos that Yallop and general manager John Doyle are striving for. A top-dollar designated player help from abroad is unlikely, so if the Quakes are going to continue their climb from the Western Conference cellar, it will be by virtue of their elbow grease above all.
“[I’m] just trying to put in a lot of work for the team and do anything to help the team win,” Lenhart said. “For myself, whatever, but [the goal is] one for the team. The team’s battling, and we’re in this together. It’s nothing for me. It’s for my team.”
That includes all the bumps and bruises that Lenhart collects from center backs looking to muscle him off of passes into the box.
“If I was in his position, I’d be yelling at the ref, yelling at the players, yelling at whoever,” Quakes defender Jason Hernandez admitted. “But I think he’s kind of used to it. He understands he’s a physical presence, and if he’s going to dish it out, he’s gotta be able to take it. I think he’s done a tremendous job up front. Without him, we struggled a bit, and having him in the lineup makes all the difference.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes