SAN FRANCISCO — Chris Wondolowski may have scored 35 MLS goals since the beginning of the 2010 season, yet one can still make a fairly convincing case that as Steven Lenhart goes, so go the San Jose Earthquakes.
Lenhart didn’t play a part in San Jose’s game-winning goal against New England last week — that came courtesy of Wondolowski, converting off Shea Salinas’ steal and through ball — but the 6-foot-1 target forward was often the center of attention in his first Quakes game since July 20.
The feisty forward drew four fouls Saturday, was called for three of his own and received a 40th-minute yellow card that led coach Frank Yallop to opine earlier this week that the 25-year-old was “getting picked on, to be honest,” by the refereeing crew.
“I look at him and think, ‘He’s not fouling guys. He’s just going for the ball,’” Yallop said. “They see it a different way, the officials. They’ve got to learn the way he goes about things. He doesn’t foul people. He just goes for the ball and bumps into guys. He doesn’t throw elbows, doesn’t kick guys off the ball. He doesn’t do anything that’s outside of the rules of the game except play hard.”
Including the 1-0 victory against the Revs, since acquiring Lenhart on draft day in 2011, the Quakes are 5-3-6 with him in the starting lineup, 4-9-8 without.
Lenhart will have to bring the same energy this Saturday against the Houston Dynamo to what is expected to be a water-logged pitch at AT&T Park (5 pm ET, MLS Live). With at times heavy rain forecast through the Quakes’ afternoon match against Houston, Yallop admitted Friday that the team may have to play more aerially, which would fit right into Lenhart’s style.
Contact has always been a Lenhart trademark, even when he was a youngster lacking the frame to match the game.
“When I was 16, on my driver’s license, I was 5-foot-6, 114 pounds, my junior year in high school,” Lenhart told MLSsoccer.com. Despite the lack of size, Lenhart said, “I was pretty aggressive. Once I grew into my body, it was like, ‘Oh, this actually works now.’ It was a little more effective.”
On the foul immediately preceding the yellow card last weekend, Lenhart clearly had a fistful of New England defender Kevin Alston’s jersey as the pair went up for a 50-50 header near midfield. But the forward — who last year baited LA goalkeeper Josh Saunders into a straight red card — insisted Friday that he’s not trying to play dirty.
“Cards are just a part of the game,” Lenhart said. “Nothing’s intentional, it’s not on my mind. I’m just trying to win, to play hard. Definitely the role of that position is to be a presence, hold the ball for the team and make myself as available as possible.”
The card was one reason Yallop pulled Lenhart, who missed the final 14 matches last year on a family leave of absence. The Quakes’ offense stumbled afterwards.
“I think the big thing [was], we had to take Lenny out because of his yellow, which kind of hurt us a little bit, to be honest,” Yallop said. “It’s no disrespect to Khari [Stephenson, who replaced Lenhart], but it didn’t really go as well as I thought it would go, once we’d done that.”
Outside of Wondolowski’s well-struck ball from just outside the box, which left New England goalkeeper Matt Reis with no chance, San Jose didn’t put another shot on net the rest of the match. Yallop said he still sees signs of an offensive breakout in waiting.
“We were kind of inches away from slipping a guy in for the break that we needed,” Yallop said. “Marvin [Chávez] crossed one, I think Shea crossed one that was just out of people’s reach. If you stick that in, it ends up two or three [goals], probably, and then we’re saying, ‘What a great performance.’
“If we get chances to punish a team, we’ve got to do it.”
Lenhart's tough day at the office
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.