SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Steven Lenhart spent three years, 63 MLS matches and 2,983 minutes wearing the familiar black-and-yellow kit of the Columbus Crew.
His unruly head of curly blond locks, combined with his bruising, forceful style, made the California native a fan favorite in Ohio. He remains close to his former teammates, to the point where Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers flew 2,000 miles in late March to attend the funeral of Steven’s father, Gary.
Yet even with all those connections, Lenhart doesn’t foresee any problems getting into the right competitive frame of mind when his new team, the San Jose Earthquakes, hosts his old one Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium (10:30 pm ET; Direct Kick and MatchDay Live).
“Playing pickup basketball with your friends, you want to beat them, and then afterwards, you guys are buddies, have a barbecue,” Lenhart told MLSsoccer.com. “[It’s the] same mentality. Just because there’s more people watching, they’re all my buddies still at the end of the day. But I’m going to kick them, elbow them, do what I can to try to win.”
After his March and April were derailed by the double-whammy of arthroscopic knee surgery to correct cartilage damage and the death of his dad, Lenhart is rounding into form for San Jose, who coveted a legitimate target forward. Lenhart has played the full 90 minutes in consecutive MLS matches, and his timing, though not yet perfect, is getting better.
“Physically, he’s doing pretty good,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop told MLSsoccer.com. “Game savvy and that little bit of finishing touch to his game are still not quite there, but I’ve seen improvement in each game he’s played and I think that he’s about to get it all together and do well. Hopefully it starts Saturday.”
That would make a great storyline for Lenhart, who was excited by the prospect of going toe-to-toe with Rogers and seeing who comes out on top.
“I’m really looking forward to running by Robbie Rogers, because I’m a lot faster than him, so it should be good,” Lenhart said, keeping a straight face. “We’ll see if he can keep up with me.”
Stopping Lenhart will more likely fall on the likes of Columbus center back Chad Marshall. And more than anything, Lenhart’s success might depend on how quickly he can mesh with Chris Wondolowski as a forward pairing.
Yallop teamed those two together as attackers for the first time all season on Wednesday against Vancouver. It’s a partnership that is expected to continue Saturday. While each had dangerous moments — including Wondolowski’s heel-flick goal in the 39th minute — against the Whitecaps, they seemed slightly out of sync, often discussing what worked and what didn’t as the game went on.
“That’ll come for sure,” Lenhart said of fine-tuning his timing with Wondolowski. “It’s fun playing with him up top. We’re talking and we’re trying to figure stuff out; it’s the first time we really played up top together. [There’s a] lot more games to come, hopefully. … He’s a good finisher and a great player, so I try to match that and bring some things that he doesn’t have to the table.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes