RYAN BACIC - Thursday, April 25, 2013
Think you know the real Steven Lenhart? Think again.
The San Jose Earthquakes forward, whose brash play has earned him the near-unanimous title of Major League Soccer's greatest villain, is hardly what he's perceived to be, according to team- and carpool-mate Tommy Muller.
"Steven Lenhart is the nicest guy I've ever met," the rookie center back said when reached by phone Tuesday night. "He's so funny. He is the most thoughtful, [and] he just has a great heart for people.
"He loves the piano, and I gave him piano lessons during preseason. This guy is the nicest dude you'll ever meet."
Perhaps that's a tough image to process for MLS fans that have long served as witnesses to - and complained about - Lenhart's supposedly ‘dirty' play.
During his five-plus seasons with Columbus and now with San Jose, the 26-year-old has often been targeted for his aggression and overall gamesmanship, which, yes, does include a bit of playacting and simulation. It's a style that has proven effective, though, helping the Earthquakes to draw the second-most penalty kicks in the league in 2012.
On an individual level, Lenhart put up one of the best goals-to-minutes played ratios in MLS in 2012, tallying 10 times in 26 appearances, only 18 of which were starting nods.
So while NBC Sports color commentator and former MLS standout Kyle Martino says that "everyone in the league" hates to play Lenhart, the reason why may have more to do with his successes than his demeanor.
"Other players in MLS love him, like they know that he's not like that, but the fans all hate him," Muller said. "He laughs about it - like all the antics and stuff he does, he's just a goofball. It's funny how many people just don't really know Lenny, because if you did, you'd have nothing but good things to say about him."
After commuting together from Santa Cruz for practice every morning since his signing earlier this year, Muller certainly does.
Oh, and the third member of that Earthquakes carpool? Another highly controversial striker these days: occasional U.S. national teamer Alan Gordon.
Gordon, who provided the game-winning assist against Antigua and Barbuda in October, was suspended three games for his use of a homophobic slur on April 15 that was directed at Portland Timbers captain Will Johnson.
That offense can't be rationalized away, of course, but an apologetic Gordon - whom Muller likewise called "one of the nicest guys I've ever met" - stressed to Lenhart and Muller that it was highly out of character for him.
"I haven't said that word since high school," Gordon told them. "I have no idea how that came out of my mouth."