As the month of April was coming to a close, the San Jose Earthquakes seemed to be slipping further and further away from the form that helped them reach the postseason the season before.
The offense was stagnant and the defense was being pressured into too many costly mistakes. San Jose’s 2010 MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski was getting his chances on goal, but with opposing defenders marking him closely, the space and time to unleash his signature shots were limited. Wondo was working hard up top, but was missing that one thing that would propel him back into the conversation of the MLS elite.
Back on MLS draft day in January, bruising Columbus Crew forward Steven Lenhart was relaxing near his family’s home in Yorba Linda, Calif. and enjoying the rest afforded by the offseason. When his phone rang alerting him that he had been traded to San Jose, the news was mostly unexpected, but certainly welcomed. After three years in the Midwest, following a successful college career in Southern California, the chance to move back to the Golden State felt like a homecoming. Lenhart embraced the move to the Earthquakes and he quickly bonded with his teammates. Knee surgery in the pre-season and the subsequent untimely death of his father prevented him from getting on the field with his new team, as his physical and emotional rehabilitation required his full attention. Lenhart returned to the fold a half dozen matches into the season, but still needed time to complete the path back to full fitness and confidence.
Their stories, once just about the individual, slowly meshed together as the two Earthquakes strikers developed the chemistry required for all striking partnerships to be successful. Wondolowski soon learned what to expect on the field from the big fellow with the curly golden locks, while Lenhart figured out the best methods to steer the ball toward the opportunistic shooter with the golden boots. Sharing the field in training against teammates and in matches against MLS foes, the pair showed glimpses of their cohesion as a striking pair, but their development was still incomplete.
However, that all changed last Saturday night as the Earthquakes blitzed the Columbus Crew in a 3-0 victory in front of an appreciative Buck Shaw crowd. Wondolowski and Lenhart, paired up top as the starting strikers in the Quakes 4-4-2 formation for only the second time all season, went together like peanut butter and jelly. The dynamic duo spent the first half calibrating their play before closing out the second half with the best stretch of offensive soccer seen from the Earthquakes in 2011. Wondo was still all smiles days later when looking back at how much the partnership with Lenhart is reaching new heights.
“He absolutely complements my game,” shared Wondolowski after a recent training session. “I can play underneath him, while he wins a lot of balls. He had at least two balls that he laid off to me in the first half (against Columbus) that I should have gotten on frame, and I was frustrated by that. It was some great play by him, and I think more and more we’ll keep striving to do better.”
Lenhart in turn was more subdued about the performance, probably in part to the opposing team filled with players with whom he still shares a strong bond. With a low, murmured voice, the Quakes forward congratulated Wondolowski on the nice goal before laughing at having his credited goal be surrendered by MLS to teammate Brandon McDonald. His first goal with his new team will come soon enough, but in the meantime watching his teammates benefit from his play was reward enough.
“He’s a great player, and I think we are getting more and more on the same page,” said Wondolowski when asked to assess his new striking partner. “It’s incredible playing with him, especially the way he battles and fights for every ball. I just get to pick up the scraps and pick and choose where I want to go, which helps me a lot. He understands the game very well and is such a force up there.”
The partnership is hard at work and starting to pay dividends for the Earthquakes. On this week’s official team podcast, the Quakes Cast, the discussion turned as to how to describe the front line of Wondolowski and Lenhart. As individuals, the two players are readily identifiable and referred to by the supporters at Buck Shaw Stadium. However, as they emerge as a strike force to be reckoned with, a new moniker seems necessary for the duo, a shared nickname for the complementary pair of heroes. The Golden Boot and the Golden Mane? Wondo and ‘Stache? With the Earthquakes season seemingly back on track, and Wondolowski and Lenhart leading the way offensively, the time has come for supporters to share their nickname ideas in the comments section below. It is such a simple challenge — let’s find one that rolls off the tongue just right and gives the boys their due.