SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For several minutes on Saturday night, it was unclear if Steven Lenhart was going to receive credit for his first goal as a member of the San Jose Earthquakes, or if — since the ball took a deflection off the back of teammate Brandon McDonald — he would get his first assist.
One thing that was never in doubt: Facing his old team for the first time since being traded in January by the Columbus Crew to San Jose, Lenhart put on by far his best performance as a Quake, helping his new team to a 3-0 win.
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“It means a lot,” Lenhart said of having such a night against the Crew, who selected him 48th overall in the 2008 SuperDraft out of Azusa Pacific University. “I spent three years [at Columbus]. I respect the coaches and the team. I was just focused today and I wanted to perform well. My family was here, so I tried really hard. You expect that every week, but today especially.”
After missing the first five matches of the season due to arthroscopic knee surgery and the death of his father, Lenhart showed exactly why San Jose were willing to forgo the 15th pick in January’s SuperDraft in order to secure the 24-year-old’s services.
“I think he’s done a phenomenal job getting back into the swing of it,” Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski said. “He just keeps getting better each day, in practice and in games.”
Despite making just his third start, the 6-foot-1 target man was clearly the focus of Columbus’ attention, as evidenced by his getting taken down with a hard tackle by Dilly Duka barely 10 seconds into the match. His gravitational pull drew in extra defenders, generating acres of open space in the Crew defense, including the hole Wondolowski exploited for his fifth goal of the season.
“He creates so much space [with] what he does to fight for balls,” Wondolowski said. “I can just drift underneath and pick up second balls. His drive and fight out there is just unreal. It’s one-of-a-kind. It’s just a joy to play out there with him.”
Lenhart’s toughness helped set the tone for San Jose’s all-field defending, which led to only their second shutout of the season.
“Lenny’s [got] that robust, all-action, never-give-up, never-say-die attitude to his game,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “Even in the last minute, he’s heading the ball and chasing and fighting, all the things we knew he would do.”
And Lenhart’s aerial ability paid off with his first goal with San Jose. He set up for Joey Gjertsen’s 59th-minute corner kick just a few yards inside the far end of the Columbus penalty box. Lenhart broke away from his marker (Columbus left back Rich Balchan) just before Gjertsen delivered his kick, and kicked hard on a diagonal run to the middle of the six-yard box.
Once there, Lenhart rose up for the free header and drove it to the back post. On its way, it took a carom off of McDonald’s lower back, which led to the confusion as to who would ultimately get credit for the score.
“It’s Lenny’s goal,” Yallop said. “I mean, it hit Brandon, but Brandon can’t claim that one, I don’t think.”
On this night, certainly not.
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes