Unless you hail from the Bay Area, you probably do not care about San Jose's soccer club. If you are a supporter of another MLS team, you might even detest those that don Blue and Black. Put simply, in professional sports in North America, there may not be a team that fans love to hate more than the San Jose Earthquakes.
And the face that everyone assigns to the perceived villainy? It belongs to none other than Steven Lenhart, the bruising blonde-haired forward with a penchant for in-your-face physical play.
On Wednesday, the MLS Disciplinary Committee weighed in on Lenhart's behavior in recent games and handed the striker a two game suspension for conduct detrimental to the game. The suspension stems from a collective of isolated incidents in matches against the Portland Timbers and Chivas USA, and was specifically attributed to violent conduct that endangered the safety of his opponent, Chivas USA's Mario de Luna, in the 68th minute of their game on April 27
The scything sixth year forward has seen his share of controversy for his direct style of play, and he certainly dishes out his fair share of fouls, but the intensity at which he endeavors can be very effective in helping his team do well. Since joining the Earthquakes to start the 2011 season, the club has produced an incredible number of record book marks and memorable moments. Lenhart, after all, is the originator of the team motto "Goonies never say die," and his tireless effort is often credited with the team excelling as much as it does.
However, sometimes the histrionics do seem a bit too much, and that proved to be the case for MLS. Following a number of off-the-ball incidents against the Timbers during a 1-1 draw on April 21, notably directed at Portland midfielder Will Johnson, and a seemingly avoidable collision with Chivas USA defender Mario de Luna a week later, the Disciplinary Committee deemed Lenhart's actions to be worthy of punishment.
At the time of both matches, Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop did not let Lenhart's histrionics go unnoticed, as he substituted the forward out of both games before Lenhart could do something that would hurt his team. Yallop has repeatedly backed Lenhart as a player that has the skills to be effective, but the coach also knows when the forward gets too close to earning a sending off.
To be sure, Lenhart can be a nuisance, but he also takes an enormous amount of physical abuse during matches. Obviously this stems from his style of play, but that does not excuse some of the hits opposing defenders are able to administer without retribution from the in-game referees. Decisions like MLS made today need to be taken into account when looking at the big picture of how Lenhart's actions play out on both sides.
The two match suspension will mean that Lenhart will miss home matches this week against the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC. He will join his striking partner Alan Gordon on the suspended list, currently serving four games for inappropriate language used in a match earlier in April, and will be able to rejoin the team for the Quakes visit to Seattle on May 11. Gordon will also be available for that match against the Sounders
In Lenhart's stead, Yallop is likely to use either Mike Fucito or Adam Jahn paired up top with reigning MLS MVP Chris Wondolowski. The Earthquakes opened the season without Lenhart and Gordon in the line-up; the team will need to survive the next two matches under similar circumstances.
Every narrative needs a bad guy, and in MLS these days, that role seems to be played by the Quakes. And Lenhart does personify the villain character with aplomb, but the positives he brings to the team's success outweigh that perception. The Supporters' Shield earned last year adorning the Earthquakes trophy case is testament to that claim. Even a slow start to 2013 has done little to dampen the enthusiasm around the club, and the mere sight of Lenhart back in the starting line-up has lifted spirits team wide.
Lenhart doesn't need to change his behavior; rather, he just needs to know when to dial down the antics. Without a doubt, he is much more effective on the field than off, and the Earthquakes will need a focused Lenhart to continue their recent successful run of form.