Quick, who would you say is the No. 1 villain in American sports today?
Is it Ndamukong Suh, “the dirtiest player in the NFL,” according to the Sporting News? Meh.
Is it Alex Rodriguez, whose enormous salary still can’t buy postseason baseball success? Tired.
How about LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, reviled by NBA fans for their image issues? Weak.
In short, there is a shortage of good villains these days. Ron Artest has found Buddha. Chad Ochocinco is out of football. Barry Bonds, we hardly knew ye – and you’ve been overshadowed by, well, by your former team winning two World Series without you.
That’s why, in some funny way, I’m a little sad to see Rafa Márquez depart Major League Soccer. Yes, it may have been long overdue. And the Red Bulls probably could do better with an orange cone playing central defense. (They will miss his long passes, for the record – but how often was he on the field to deliver those?)
But it’s pretty hard to argue that there was no player in MLS who was more of a firebrand, who was hated perhaps more by his team’s own fans than any group of supporters in the league. I won’t go into all the reasons why he’s so hated. If you want a great breakdown of his legacy, and reminders of all the things he did wrong, read Nick Firchau’s excellent commentary.
With Márquez gone, there really isn’t anyone to hold up as an iconic villain, the kind of guy you love to boo.
Except for one: Steven Lenhart. And guess what? He’s more fun to hate than Rafa. Yes, really.
Lenny isn’t the cheap type of bad guy. He doesn’t say ridiculous things off the field, the kind of moronic comments that turn guys like John Rocker into bigger names than they should be.
He doesn’t do anything controversial away from the game the way that so many pro athletes have done – there are too many to count, and they certainly don’t deserve to have their names printed here.
No, Lenhart is fun to hate for one simple reason: You can’t stand to play against him.
WATCH: Lenny draws yellow on Omar
The San Jose Earthquakes target man made more enemies across MLS backlines this year just for getting the best of them. Sure, he’ll embellish a bit and perhaps influence a referee or two to whistle in his favor. He’ll throw a limb here and there to get a physical edge.
Just ask MLS Cup 2012 MVP Omar Gonzalez, who had called the Quakes "a bunch of jokes." It wasn't hard to see which player he had foremost in mind. Lenny was so far inside his head, the Galaxy destroyer was practically gushing over finally overcoming San Jose during the playoffs.
And that’s what makes Lenhart great: He does what he needs to do on the field to help his team win. Without hurting anyone. Without really doing something so abhorrent that you question his character.
Lenhart is, by all accounts, a great guy. He’s a goofy surfer dude from Southern California who still hits the waves up in Santa Cruz with his pal Alan Gordon. Despite his 6-foot-1 frame with a blond mane that makes him loom larger, he’s anything but intimidating.
He’s a beloved teammate for his easygoing nature and one of those “locker room guys” everyone raves about in helping his team develop perfect chemistry.
And that all changes when you’re on the field with him. “Big Bird” brings out the boo birds because fans know their team will have a tougher time winning when Lenhart is involved.
To me, that is the letter-perfect definition of a villain: a guy you love to hate not because he’s a bad guy, but because you know you’re in for a day of hell when you face him. And you may not admit it, because you loathe him so – but somewhere, deep down, you wish he were on your team.
You have to go back a long way in American sports to find a character who truly embodies everything Lenhart is to MLS – all the way back to Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” era. Hardly anyone remembers Laimbeer for what a vital cog he was in the Pistons winning back-to-back NBA titles, or his adept outside shooting skills that were shockingly good for a near 7-footer.
No, they remember “His Heinous” for burying himself in opponents’ heads, for embellishing contact in the paint, for baiting foes into doing stupid things. And at the heart of it all, they remember the fact that it was damned near impossible to beat the Pistons when he was in the lineup.
You can keep your Barry Bondses, your Latrell Sprewells, even your Ty Cobbs. That’s a group of athletes who are despised for all the wrong reasons. You can't mention their contributions to their respective sports while ignoring what they did to take away from them. And you can add Márquez to the list.
Me, I’m going to continue to enjoy watching Lenhart, the Bad Boy of MLS. For the immediate future, he’s running unopposed.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.