SANTA CLARA, Calif. – As the minutes wound down and the missed opportunities piled up, a sellout crowd at Buck Shaw Stadium knew that if the San Jose Earthquakes were going to find a last-minute equalizer against the Chicago Fire, it could only come from one man.
With 2,500 fans wearing wigs based on his blond locks, Steven Lenhart returned from a four-game absence due to concussion symptoms and delivered a 98th-minute goal to give shorthanded San Jose a 1-1 tie.
“It’s like a friggin’ fairy tale,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “It had to be Lenny tonight, on wig night, in his first game back. He came in and did what he always does – a bull in a china shop.”
GOAL: Lenhart equalizes in eighth minute of stoppage time
A bull with a stinging right foot, one that laced a 20-yard shot to puncture Chicago’s defense after goalkeeper Sean Johnson had turned aside 10 San Jose shots on goal, several of them in spectacular fashion.
“I’d like to think that it’s a little bit of destiny and good fortune,” San Jose defender Jason Hernandez said. “On a night dedicated to [Lenhart] and what he brings, it’s great to have him back. We’ve missed him, and obviously, you can see why.”
The tying play – which came five minutes after Alan Gordon was sent off for receiving his second yellow card – was set up by a long pass from Shea Salinas, who dropped to right back in the final minutes as San Jose tried to maximize their attacking potential. Chris Wondolowski chested the ball down from just inside Chicago’s box, expertly teeing the ball up for Lenhart to lash home for his seventh goal of the season.
“Wondo set that up. I just happened to be there,” said Lenhart, who donned a wig thrown from the crowd as part of his celebration. “I turned around and saw him, and once I saw what he was thinking about doing, I ran onto it.”
It was a new variation on the Goonies’ old comeback script; usually Lenhart tenderizes opposing defenses early, affording chances for teammates such as Wondolowski and Gordon to conjure up equalizers or game-winners in the waning moments.
But with only two training sessions before his first match since July 3, Lenhart was held out until the 59th minute. That’s when coach Frank Yallop inserted Lenhart to try and punch something past Johnson, who was practically standing on his head to keep San Jose – and especially dangerous midfielder Simon Dawkins – off the scoreboard.
“Obviously a fitting guy to score tonight,” Yallop said. “I thought he was going to be a little bit rusty, but I thought he challenged for balls, he ran well, and what a finish. I’m very happy for him.”
Lenhart said the Quakes’ confidence in a last-gasp goal never wavered, even in the face of Johnson’s stellar work.
“It was well done on his end, and he kept them in the game,” Lenhart said. “But it doesn’t change anything that we’re doing. I thought we played well tonight and created a lot of chances.”
It took Lenhart, though, to finally reward San Jose’s efforts on a night that looked as though it would end in more acrimony over the officiating; the Quakes felt that referee Chris Penso missed three handballs that should have led to penalty kicks.
“I felt really proud of the guys to keep going,” Yallop said. “They’re ecstatic in the dressing room that we got a point that we really deserved tonight.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.