In doubling his season goal total, San Jose Earthquakes forward Steven Lenhart might have exponentially increased his team’s chances of crashing the 2013 MLS playoff party.
Lenhart’s first-half brace powered the Quakes to a 2-1 victory against Real Salt Lake on Saturday -- an outcome that few outside of San Jose’s locker room likely predicted, and one that provided a huge boost to their postseason hopes.
The 200th regular-season victory in San Jose’s franchise history pulled the Quakes past idle FC Dallas and into a tie with Vancouver for sixth place in the Western Conference on 41 points. At 11-11-8, San Jose have reached .500 for the first time since May 11.
“It was a big win, for sure,” Quakes interim head coach Mark Watson said. “We knew, just looking at the standings and the games remaining, that we maybe had to be perfect on the way in.”
It was Lenhart’s first multi-goal game since Sept. 29, when he netted two against FC Dallas, and marked a roaring return from the forward who scored a career-high 10 times last year but struggled to find that form for much of 2013.
“I thought Steven was fantastic tonight,” Watson said. “The goals were excellent. He’s very brave, he’s a powerful guy, he attacks everything 100 percent. Two great finishes, but I thought the things he did throughout the game were good. He worked hard, he battled for everything. Lenny always gives you 100 percent. It was no different tonight.”
Lenhart delivered the critical tallies by using his head to cash in a pair of crosses, the first from Cordell Cato on the right wing in the 18th minute, the second by Shea Salinas from the opposite side three minutes later. It was classic direct play for the Quakes, who had been generating chances but few goals -- just 29 in as many regular-season matches -- with that style of attack.
“I think when you’re not scoring goals, there’re always some questions as to why,” Salinas said. “Is it the service? Is it the runs? What is it? So we’ve worked a lot lately on quality service. Guys have [been] attacking the ball, and tonight, Lenny was just a beast in the air. [Chris Wondolowski] had a few great runs and chances as well.
“It worked for us all last year and it’s worked for us this season. Just because we went through a little drought, it doesn’t mean we’re going to change from crossing the ball into our guys who can attack it.”
The brace helped Lenhart, who declined to speak to the media Saturday, leapfrog teammate Alan Gordon into eighth place on the Quakes’ all-time scoring chart. Lenhart, who came to San Jose in a draft-day trade before the 2011 season, has 19 goals in 48 MLS games with the club.
The timing of Lenhart’s second goal was especially crucial. RSL electrified Rio Tinto Stadium with a lightning-fast response to the Quakes’ first score, with Javier Morales walking in unattended to jam home Kyle Beckerman’s corner kick. But Salinas’ quick restart off a foul well outside the box found Lenhart, who once again beat a pinned Nick Rimando and stamped out the crowd’s growing fervor.
“It was huge,” Quakes midfielder Sam Cronin said. “Once they scored, you could feel the stadium came to life a little bit. Their players came to life a little bit. So to respond that quickly, it was great for us.”
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With a trio of goals from different sources -- Salinas, Wondolowski and Marvin Chavez -- against MLS opponent Montreal during CONCACAF Champions League play on Tuesday and now a resurgence from Lenhart, the Quakes’ attack looks as dangerous as it has at any point this year.
The question now: With only four matches left, will this be enough to carry San Jose across the finish line, in the manner of the eventual MLS Cup-winning LA Galaxy last year?
“Hopefully,” Watson said. “It’s been an up-and-down season, there’s been a lot of adversity. I just think our backs are up against the proverbial wall at this point, so you’re really drawing on guys’ spirit and character. It’s something I never question with our players.”