In what has unquestionably been the toughest professional season of Steven Lenhart’s MLS career, he has responded with some of his most successful soccer.
Lenhart’s team, the San Jose Earthquakes, are now 4-1-2 since he moved into the starting lineup on April 30. That includes four wins in the Quakes’ last five games, capped by a 4-2 victory at D.C. United on Saturday which featured Lenhart’s first career MLS hat trick.
The joy is tempered, however, by the grief Lenhart feels at the death of his father, Gary, in late March.
“There’s a lot that’s been going on in my life,” Lenhart said. “I think more than anything, it’s just a good release for me to play.”
Lenhart scored in the 15th, 22nd and 60th minutes to record just the fifth hat trick in Quakes’ franchise history, and added an assist on San Jose’s other goal, a 49th-minute tally by Simon Dawkins. The 24-year-old had last recorded a hat trick as a senior at Azusa Pacific University.
“It’s been coming for Steven,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “He’s had chances. (I’m) very, very happy for Steve. He’s been though a lot this year with his family stuff and moving from Columbus. The difference was Lenhart tonight.”
San Jose long coveted Lenhart before acquiring him in a draft-day trade this winter, and for obvious reasons: He was the kind of bruising target forward that the club has lacked since being reborn in 2008. He compares favorably to former Quakes forward Brian Ching, who moved with the club’s first incarnation to Houston in 2005.
But did Yallop really forsee Lenhart -- who now has four goals in his last two matches -- playing quite this spectacularly?
“Yeah,” Yallop insisted. “Sometimes goals come in bunches. His finishing tonight was excellent.”
Indeed, Lenhart showed some skills Saturday that never really materialized after spending his first three MLS seasons with the Columbus Crew.
On his first goal, Lenhart showed some deft footwork to dribble around hard-charging D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid and find the empty net. It was a solid display for someone better known for scoring with their head -- as Lenhart had done last week -- and who faced criticism in Columbus for too often missing the net.
The second goal showed Lenhart’s relentless drive, as he beat D.C.’s backline to a loose rebound from Khari Stephenson’s drilled 22-yard shot and knocked it home.
The third score proved Lenhart’s fearlessness as he knocked home a header even as Hamid was bearing down on him, trying to punch away Steven Beitashour’s looping, long-range feed.
“(Lenhart showed) bravery on the third one,” Yallop said. “A big, 6-foot-5 goalkeeper about to punch your face in, and he puts his head right through the ball and scores a goal. He showed tonight what he’s good at, and that’s competing very well.”
Yet Lenhart’s hard work has never previously led to this kind of bounty of goals. And Lenhart’s teammates, knowing the kind of pain he’s been in -- and still is in -- couldn't be happier to see him get justly rewarded for those efforts.
“With all the stuff he’s had going on this year, he’s not trained that much, he’s been injured,” Yallop said. “You’ve got to look at all those factors. With his father dying, it’s been a very, very sad time for Steve. You add all that up, for him to get a hat trick, it’s so pleasing. I’m so happy for him, because he’s a great kid. It’s well-deserved.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes