Monday, August 20, 2012

The MLS Grinder: Why you hate Steven Lenhart (and why I don't)

Steven Lenhart: the most polarizing character in the league?
I have a friend who happens to be an MLS fan, and he recently swept through town on business. He is from Seattle and is, predictably, a Sounders fan. All of the well-worn tropes you just snapped to in your mind about Sounders fans? Most apply here. He is unquestionably proud of the Sounders as an organization, has at least three green and blue Sounders scarves, is probably a bit too proud of his Sounders allegiance and has no qualms about defending all of these things. None of this surprised me, nor did it annoy me. But then he is also a very reasonable man. So when we got down to brass tacks over some barbecue (sadly for him, this was one arena where he could not brag his way past Texas), it surprised me when he came out guns blazing about Steven Lenhart. This was a divisive figure, I knew, but there was real brick-oven, kiln-fired hate behind his words. The conversation went like this.

"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.

I'm not asking you to defend Lenhart. I'm not even asking you to like him (and for the record, I am not a San Jose fan). But I am saying that I don't vilify him, and I certainly don't hate him. I've never understood this "chivalrous" American attitude toward the sport, if you even want to call it that, where there is no gray area left in the game, just black and white. You are right or you are wrong. I cannot see the game in such stark, clumsy blocks. Lenhart has more or less lived his entire career in the gray, vacillating between the white (his eight goals in 1167 minutes is the second-best rate of return in the league behind only teammate Alan Gordon) and black (the indefensible elbow that led to this moment on Saturday).

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


dikranovich said...

pacman, it looks like you fixed blogger so it did not delete you ode to war and peace. god job!

Wideboy said...

It kind of reminds me when Danny Ainge played for the Celtics ... we all "hated" the way he played but sure wanted him on "our" team if he was available lol.

Pablo Chicago said...

You're asking sports fans to bridge the gap intelligently?

Good one.

The labels"hero" and "villan" are liberally applied in the sports court of public opinion.

Confrontation, controvery and the drama that's what passionate fans embrace and a sport with passionate fans is a good thing.

Besides if you want an MLS fan to go ballistic at your next BBQ, just say, "Remember Blanco?"

Unknown said...

Dema Kovalenko

Jay said...

Dik, you're managing to be casually insulting again. Stop it.

Yes, Lenhart is an annoyance. I think what's more bothersome, though perhaps most people haven't narrowed it down to this, is that he's becoming more of an annoyance. Evidence: yes, I spent too much time on this.

This spreadsheet shows all of the players listed as a forward or midfielder/forward on the first ten pages of MLS' season statistics page as of 11 AM central time, August 20th 2012, sorted by minutes played. Therefore, this is a list of the most utilized strikers in the league. For each, I've grabbed their individual statistics, and for players like Sebastian Le Toux and Danny Mwanga I've aggregated their stats from both teams they've played for. And for effect, I've added Steven Lenhart's stats from the past five seasons -- 2012 is highlighted in blue, and the prior four seasons are in grey. For even more effect, I've added Cuauhtemoc Blanco's stats from 2007-2009, highlighted in yellow.

Now, I've calculated two additional statistics: Minutes per Foul Committed (MpFC) and Minutes per Yellow Card (MpYC). These are straightfoward: MpFC = Minutes / FC, and MpYC = Minutes / YC. The table is sorted on MpFC. No, this table doesn't account for flops, dives, and bullshit like that. To the best of my knowledge, that's not an accumulated statistic.

Go ahead and take a minute. Look at that table. Tell me where Steven Lenhart sits. You can sort it on MpYC, too, if you like. And yeah, I guess take a note of where Blanco is on that list.

In both of those statistics, of all the most-used strikers in the entire league, Lenhart is only worse than Eric Hassli -- in both categories. But what's more is, if you look at the succession of those numbers from the start of his career with Columbus ('08-'10), his MpFC and MpYC are both increasing. Namely, he's on the field longer between fouls and cards, i.e. turning the ball over less. When he gets to San Jose, those number take a drastic turn in the other direction. I presume we can blame Frank Yallop for this, but we can all certainly agree that it's gotten results for the Quakes.

When I look at this table, what I get from it is that Lenhart (and Hassli, too, for that matter) isn't playing the role of the attacker, at least not in the traditional sense. He's being a thug. It isn't so much that Americans want to define "proper" soccer, it's that Americans want to see beautiful, technical soccer played with grace. Lenhart is holding the torch for the antithesis of that. If Yallop thinks he's being "singled out" now, well, there's a damn reason for it. He's fouling at an insane rate, so of course referees are going to pay attention to that.

As for that classic SJ-LA match, yes, absolutely Saunders should have been sent off. IMHO, however, a foul should have been called on Lenhart for denying Saunders the opportunity to put the ball back into play. That's a specific, defined foul in the laws. At the time I remember being livid that Lenhart walked away without any infringement at all. Perhaps that's why, for me, he's a player that gets my goat -- for all his aggressive play, his fouling, his thug tactics, his most egregious acts seem to go unpunished.

Alex said...

Whoa, statistical analysis to support something. That's crazy. Lenhart used to bother me when he was with Columbus but now I don't mind him, in fact, I think he's growing on me.

Will Parchman said...

Great stuff, Jay. Thanks for the input.

Jay said...

Yeah, when he was with Columbus, I mostly thought he was just a lumbering oaf up front, there only to soak up center backs. It's become clear to me now, at San Jose, that he's coming into his own. It's just that "his own" means being an asshole on the pitch.

dikranovich said...

jay, i will never bust you for just writing one liners ever again. you mistake me jay, thats ok though. i felt for will losing his article last week. and since it happened to me, i felt his pain.

Anonymous said...

[sorry, totally off topic hijacking here, on a cool topic too, but...] y'all see this:

bradley's #4

Kurt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Great post. Nicely done.

One thing that you typically don't see on TV is what goes on AFTER Lenny tangles with a CB and a foul is NOT called. Often there is an exchange between the two, of smiles & pats on the back or ass, sort of an acknowledgement that you tried but you didn't get me this time Lenny! To be fair, shouldn't we give those situations equal time? But there are no stats for that sort of thing & it doesn't necessarily make for good TV.

Yes, I'm an Earthquake fan that's been to every home game this season. Me & my family of 5 wore the Lenny wigs too. The guy's entertaining as hell, to us. Glad he's in a Quakes kit.

Daniel said...

I guess I see things differently than you do Will. You can take a picture of anything and make it appear one thing happened. But with Seattle pretty sure he started falling before any contact or hint of contact. Then with RSL his touch was long, Olave was about to run past him (as he does with everyone) so he cut him off (which is fine) but was still going to be passed before catching up to the ball so he grabbed Olave's shorts and pulled him into himself, felt a bump and went down. That picture is the cause of Lenhart pulling Olave into him. We can go running next to each other, I'll pull on you, you'll bump me and I'll fall. If you don't see me pull on you it will appear like you just knocked me over. Those are just 2 of about 12 examples of dirty little things Lenhart does every game. Getting into someone's head is part of the game but when you do things that are illegal to do so and aren't punished for it then people have a problem. He waits until refs turn away, does something, if the other player reacts he acts like he was shot to draw attention to the play and punish the other team. Nobody wishes he were on their team, they just wish his antics would be punished so he'd stop doing them. It crosses the gamesmanship line and goes into the cheating category. But it works more often than not so he won't stop until officials call enough against him that it hurts his team. This last instance if MTL player didn't react nothing would've happened. He traded a red for a red and pk (not sure how a double red ends in a pk for one team instead of a drop ball or something) but he'll take that everytime. Usually he trades nothing for a red/pk. An official finally punished him but it still worked out. Hopefully that ends as well.

Phil McCracken said...

I don't have a problem with Lenhart or what he does.

Wells Thompson? Now there's a guy that I can really get my hatred up for.

Will Parchman said...

You and me both, Phil. You and me both.