|Steven Lenhart: the most polarizing character in the league?|
"I'm impressed by the Quakes this year but I can never take them seriously. A few friends and I were chatting and I really despise Steven Lenhart. He taints their whole team for me."
"What about him bugs you?"
"The way he plays. His look, just his whole demeanor. Did you see his dive against the Sounders earlier this year? It was shameful. And the San Jose wig night thing? Stupid."
"I did, yeah. Thought it was pretty funny."
"It was stupid."
There was no real deeper thought process to it. It just was. Of course he pointed to a few incidents that were off-color — all of which I acknowledged to one extent or the other — but he hasn't exactly snapped anybody's femur yet either, I replied. This time it was he doing the acknowledging. So what was it? Why did he hate Steven Lenhart with every fibrous tissue of his body? It was pervasive. And it interested me.
So I did a little digging. If you look up "Steven Lenhart hate," you'd be surprised (or perhaps not, but I was a bit) by what you find. A lot, it turns out. Here are a few choice cuts. And this is just from this year.
Hate him or, well, hate him, Steven Lenhart has cynically and annoyingly demanded attention from opposing CBs...
Says Kyle Martino:
"Everyone in the league, if you gave them a choice of the top five guys they hate to play against, Steven Lenhart. Alan Gordon and Chris Wondolowski are probably in that group, all three of them."
"I may hate Steven Lenhart (we all should)…"
And then there's this stunningly complete ode to hatred.
As a reminder, I’m a huge Real Salt Lake homer.
I hate San Jose’s Steven Lenhart. I know hate is a strong word, but I do. I despise, loath and detest him.
In my dictionary the word “jerk” has a photo of him with that annoying “what foul?” face.
If he was in Game of Thrones, he would be Prince Joffry. If he was a Bad News Bear, he would be the snot nosed Tanner kid. If he was in the NBA, he would be a combination of Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer and Ron Artest.
I’m pretty sure if you listen to Lloyd Christmas make the most annoying sound ever in Dumb and Dumber, he’s shouting “LENHART!”
He plays like that annoying bully who persistently puts his finger in your chest and pushes, at least until you react. Then if you retaliate, he acts as though you’re the instigator and says it’s your fault.
What the previous (severely inflamed) writer goes on to say in that article is not that he, as an opposing fan, has learned to tolerate Lenhart, or that he can stomach him, or even that he respects his success, but that he wants him on his team. There is a real distinction to be made here. In American soccer especially, we hate those who don't play the game "the right way" until they become our players, who then become fan favorites despite everything (and what the hell is the right way to play anyway?). If you say you don't want players like Lenhart on your team, players who have a hold on the mental dark arts, you're wrong. You're lying to yourself. This is a bizarre case of mental aerobics that makes little sense to me.
There are obvious reasons why people choose to hate Lenhart, and this wasn't some new thing for me. He tends to go down easily, although not with the frequency some would lead you to believe. He's got an attitude, he's fiery and he just seems to get in your skin, operating below the surface in uncomfortable places. It erodes your ability to stay on point. It becomes less about the game and more about retaliatory action, more about getting Lenhart. He's a gnat, one who lives on the fringes of the game's acceptable behavior and forces defenders to focus on things other than the game directly in front of them.
Of course this is Exhibit A for most. Is it over the top? Of course. Was it warranted? Of course not. But neither was Josh Saunders' response. Lenhart so unnerved Saunders, so obliterated his ability to focus that he was (rightfully) sent off for retaliating. Most would not have followed Lenhart's lead — and I don't think anybody is suggesting it — but then that underscores his market value, doesn't it?
And that is not the whole of his game but rather among its sums, a tool he uses to twist in the knife. That is why, while I don't necessarily love Steven Lenhart, I certainly don't hate him. I can appreciate the side of the game that Lenhart occasionally represents, even if it's not "my thing," whatever that means to you. I think it's important we bridge this gap intelligently. I think it's important we stop saying we hate Steven Lenhart — or, in other words, that we understand what it is we're really attempting to say — and start recognizing him and those like him for the mealy-mouthed gofer he really is. Steven Lenhart is incorrigible, and I, as a neutral observer, can appreciate him for it. In many ways, Lenhart has done the same thing to fans that he's done to defenders.
And here is where we tie in Jurgen Klinsmann. Eh? Allow me to explain.
If you'll remember in late May, Klinsmann issued an impassioned appeal to his Nats for upping their gamesmanship, something Jermaine Jones already understood from his time abroad and something Donovan immediately bristled at, calling it more or less un-American. If you need a refresher, here's the moment from his presser.
And here's what I wrote about Jones after the Canada friendly in the immediate aftermath of those comments.
The lead shining example put forth has been Jermaine Jones, who fittingly picked up a yellow on Sunday. The illustrative point that I think gets at Klinsmann's point better than anything, something Greg alluded to yesterday, was the foul Jones drew on Andre Hainault that drew yellow on a flight down the right flank in Canada's third in the second half. Jones made a move outside and cut free of Hainault, who in response extended a hand and sashayed his hips outward. Down went Jones. It's not that Jones shouldn't have gone to ground. He merely made it easy for the ref to choose. Watching the replay, Jones maybe could have made provisions to fall with more difficulty or maybe not have fallen at all. Better to make sure the ref sees it than cling to some shadow notion of chivalry that does not exist. That we are Americans and we only go down by hammers and chisels or whatever. Whether the ref pulls a card or not isn't up to Jones, but it was clear by the conviction with which Jones fell that he knew what to do all along. As the player most versed in the European model of the game, this isn't surprising. Some may disagree, and that's okay, but I think Jones represents the vanguard attitude here.
It's instructive that Klinsmann didn't understand why Americans were so hung up on this issue. That we are so adamantly opposed to any kind of gamesmanship is not right or wrong by some global moral compass but rather one we've created for ourselves. I'm not suggesting that over-the-top hamming is an appropriate course of action as a rule — Neymar could stand to cool it a bit — but I'm also not suggesting that Klinsmann is incorrect to view the standard American ideal as a tad too ideal. This does not mean Donovan needs to turn to flopping every time he feels a breath of wind, but it does mean that maybe, just maybe, Jones' decision to slightly embellish a light foul for the benefit of the referee is not something to scoff at.
In this sense, Lenhart has already arrived at this place. He is tame by Brazilian standards, normal at his most extreme, is a bull moose on the ball and yet he gets hammered relentlessly by opposing fans for his gamesmanship. All of that is a smokescreen, white noise to distract you from the limbs thrashing a million miles a minute below the visible surface. What you see is Lenhart's bulky body crashing forward over a dubious challenge like an old growth timber felled by a crosscut saw, limbs hurdling over limbs, his expansive, goofy tuft of blonde hair buoyant in its protest of the movement. But over seconds and minutes and hours, what his defenders see is what got him there, the physical embodiment of purposeful motion. His heat maps are routinely a red, bloody mess around the area. It's easy enough to ignore the latter to highlight the former because it is convenient. But it is not informed, and to look at it that way is to miss the point. If Lenhart was a goon, a big aggravated mess with no real niche, we'd all have a proper go at him. But this isn't Lenhart, and it burns at his detractors.
Let's put this year in the microscope. The two most commonly cited examples — and really both of which are appropriately used as microcosms — both included antics in the box. The first came against Seattle, the second against RSL. I watched both of these events live at the time and had the same gut-shot reaction most people did — what a scudsy diver. Then I went back and looked. And looked. And looked. I watched these two replays at least a dozen times each. There is gamesmanship out the wazoo, but there was method involved in the sense that this is not as egregious as the opposition would lead you to believe. In the first photo here, Lenhart has actually beat Olave to his outside shoulder and has control when he extends his hand outward to Olave's shorts. Then this happens.
Lenhart felt the chicken wing. Lenhart went down. More or less the same situation with Jones and Hainault. He probably could have stayed up — and it was a fast play — but Olave made it too easy. Gamesmanship? Absolutely. But Olave stepped aside and left room for it. Now for the Seattle game in March. This is Marc Burch doing just enough.
Did he need to stick out a leg there? Absolutely not. Did Lenhart need to go down there? Of course not. But why make it easy for him? What Lenhart is now is a name and a reputation as much as anything. Ignoring that is... well, not very smart, is it? You either play by Lenhart's terms or you get burned. This is reality. Bristle against it all you want, but there are few players with this kind of pull in the entire league. Even Becks doesn't get this kind of leeway at times. This deserves a measure of begrudging accolade, even from San Jose's Western Conference rivals.
You're free to feel however you like about Lenhart. I'm not trying to tell you to like him or hate him, because I do neither. But there are layers worth exploring here. Live in the gray a bit and you'll see them plain as day.
- Will Parchman