While many teams in MLS were making significant roster moves in the offseason, the San Jose Earthquakes appeared to favor the core of players that led them to the Eastern Conference Championship match in the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs. Viewing the MLS SuperDraft as a chance to perhaps pick up some young talent to the depth of the squad, Earthquakes General Manager John Doyle switched things up when he traded away the team’s first-round draft pick for Columbus Crew forward Steven Lenhart. Doyle cited the trade for Lenhart as a chance to improve upon an offense that in 2010 relied much too much on the contributions of MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski. Lenhart, though not a full-time starter for Columbus, completed his third year in MLS with career highs of six goals and two assists in league play. Throw in the three goals combined he scored in the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League competitions, and Lenhart displayed a good scoring touch in 2010. Rather than take a chance on a rookie pick from the SuperDraft, Doyle saw Lenhart as a player they could depend on from the moment he arrived in San Jose.
The 24-year-old Lenhart, a college product from the unheralded soccer program at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, played three seasons for the Columbus Crew, the team that drafted him 48th overall in the 2008 SuperDraft. Making 63 appearances — including 30 starts — for the Crew in MLS league play, Lenhart totaled 13 goals in that span from his position of target forward. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he has developed a reputation for his punishing play among the league’s opposing defenders, while gaining the respect of teammates for his fearlessness. Entering the last year of his initial four-year deal with MLS, Lenhart will be looking to show continued improvements in his play and statistics ahead of negotiations on a new contract.
How does Lenhart's skillset fit into his new team?
When news broke in San Jose that Lenhart was joining the Earthquakes, his new teammates welcomed his arrival — especially the defenders. Jason Hernandez remarked that he was happy that he would have to face Lenhart in an MLS game again, recalling how much of a hand-full the physical striker has been in prior season matches with Columbus. However, he did feel bad for teammates on the second team that would have to deal with him in practice. Hernandez jokingly said it was even more incentive for him to keep his place in Yallop’s preferred starting XI.
The physical play of Lenhart is evident when looking at the statistics for fouls suffered and fouls committed in league play. In 2010, Lenhart finished 10th in MLS with just over four fouls suffered plus committed per 90 minutes of action. In 2009, he finished with an even higher average of 4.73, good for fourth in the league. Going back to his rookie season, in limited minutes Lenhart would have topped MLS with a whopping average of 6.47. While the trend over the first three years of his career is decreasing — and hopefully indicative of his playing with more control — Lenhart will likely finish 2011 with a fouls average approaching the league lead.
The Earthquakes have lacked a true target forward since their return to MLS in 2008, and Head Coach Frank Yallop has expressed his pleasure at getting a proven player to take the roll in his offensive scheme. While striker Ryan Johnson has been asked to play that role in the past two seasons, the Jamaican does best when running with the grain. Yallop will look to Lenhart to be a target man that can fend off defenders long enough for Johnson and Chris Wondolowski to take feeds from going toward goal. By virtue of his size and strength, Lenhart will also be sought out as a target on set pieces in the attacking third.
What kind of impact can Lenhart have on his team?
General Manager John Doyle was counting his good fortunes when Lenhart was made available by Columbus during the MLS SuperDraft. Knowing that Wondolowski is unlikely to repeat his scoring record from 2010 in the upcoming season without more help from the forwards, Doyle sees Lenhart as a physical presence defenders must take into account, which in turn should give Wondolowski more room to make runs at goal. Yallop echoed those thoughts, plus added that Lenhart’s offensive output has improved in each of his first three seasons — perhaps he is capable of a breakout season in 2011 in much the same way as Wondolowski last year. Before suffering a knee injury late in preseason that required him to undergo surgery, Lenhart was a first team selection in training and friendlies since camp opened up in late January. While his recovery is expected to take until the beginning of April, Lenhart will have plenty of season left to disrupt defenses and create scoring opportunities for an Earthquakes team that is otherwise starved for excellence on offense.
What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?
Before his injury, Lenhart was slated to be a fixture in Yallop’s starting XI; however, Johnson will be asked to play the role of target forward in his absence. Lenhart is not guaranteed to regain that status when he returns to training, but given that no one else on the roster matches his physical attributes, it shouldn’t be long before he’s back on the field. While just a part-time starter in Columbus, Yallop has indicated that Lenhart will be given more opportunity to play in San Jose.
With a goal scored in every three full games played in 2010, Lenhart would total just over 10 goals in 2011 if he played in every game. A conservative assignment that Lenhart plays in 80 percent of the available minutes this season would give him a projected nine goals on the campaign. Yallop has stated his expectations for Lenhart to be in the 10-12 range for the season, which is in line with the forward making strides in his ability entering his fourth MLS season. Any goals above 12 would be considered a bonus.
What's the ceiling on Lenhart?
An improving awareness about how to use his physical skills to control possession while avoiding the wrath of referee crews around MLS will allow Lenhart to thrive in the Earthquakes tactical set-up in 2011. With a heavy reliance on counter-attacks and set pieces to create scoring opportunities in seasons past, the Earthquakes can look forward to playing a more possession style of offense if Lenhart can play the target role effectively. His assists total should increase dramatically in that case (from just four assists total in 2008-10) and the goals will follow. Yallop talked during the preseason about how Wondolowski surprised everyone in MLS with his breakout 18-goal 2010 season; he feels Lenhart has the best opportunity on the team to approach that feat in 2011.
- Report by Robert Jonas of Quake, Rattle and Goal (upcoming SB Nation Earthquakes blog)