This is a guest interview by frequent TSG contributor Jay Bell.
Photos courtesy of the amazing Matt Mathai.
Few rookies come into MLS with less fanfare than Steven Lenhart. He was a virtual unknown coming out of Azusa Pacific University in California. He showed up, he worked hard, and all his team has done is win. Turns out that’s what he did in college as well.
Lenhart's hard work has always made him a winner.
I got a chance to talk to Steven on the phone Tuesday about his soccer past, present, and future. The guy just never stopped chuckling. You could tell that he was giving honest answers, but he laughed at a lot of little stuff too. I don’t know if it was my southern accent or if he was in a really good mood, but it made for a fun conversation.
I was also lucky enough to speak with his college coach, Phil Wolf. Wolf and Lenhart led Azusa Pacific to a 20-1-1 record and their first ever NAIA National Championship in 2007. Wolf has since moved to currently ranked #5 Southern Methodist and was very eager to share some words about Lenhart. His comments will be seen throughout this conversation with Steven.
TSG: First off, we just want to say congratulations on being the first MLS team to get to the quarterfinals twice in the new version of the Champions League. How do you and your team approach that competition?
Steven: Man, I think that we take each game seriously. The games do fall during the week. We’re trying to do well in the league also, so sometimes certain players don’t travel or guys that haven’t been playing play a lot. Yeah, we approach it, we take it very serious. And like you said, this is the second year that we did qualify for the quarterfinals, so I think we’re doing something right. Also, like a lot of the guys that aren’t playing–I think there’s a lot of commitment to working for each other and kind of battling, trying to get results in some of those other countries and at home.
TSG: Alright…well a lot of MLS fans, not just Crew supporters, were upset with the way that away match at Santos went down. What was that match like and what are road games like in CONCACAF in general?
Jumping up high for the header.
Steven: Yeah, dude, those–they’re always interesting. Because you don’t know, you don’t know how the reffing is gonna be. I guess you never know in a game. Yeah, you kinda feel like you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage, but at the end of the day you can’t worry about that side of things.
But yeah, just being in other countries its always an experience. Cruising around before the games, going to the grocery stores or just walking around–people are a lot more interested and asking questions. You know, like taking pictures with you. Its kind of a novelty down there. I think they like it when Americans get to come. It’s fun; I enjoy it. I really like going down there.
TSG: Speaking of enjoying it: a lot of people thought you had kind of a “coming out party” in the last quarterfinals. Do you think that just because you enjoy it more you seem to do really well in that tournament?
Steven: No; I mean, I enjoy playing. So, I don’t know. It was just another game. Yeah, when I am enjoying soccer, when I am enjoying it, yeah I play way better. But its a long season so there is a lot that goes into it. That was the beginning of the season and it was fun. Yeah. I try and play like that every game, but it just doesn’t happen.
TSG: Lets backtrack a little bit. I think you were born in Jacksonville, right?
Steven: Yeah, in Florida.
TSG: When did you first move out to California?
Steven: My whole family is from California. So my dad got transferred with his job just for… a year and that’s when I was born in Florida. So we just moved back after… literally…when I was six months old. Moved back to California. Moved back to one of the same cities that my whole family had been before.
Skipping around two defenders.
TSG: I know you went to one school for a year and then ended up at Azusa. What made you head to Azusa Pacific?
Steven: Yeah…you know, you just feel like you don’t connect somewhere or you just feel…a change needs to happen. It wasn’t necessarily soccer. I was playing at the school. My first school was called Point Loma Nazarene University. I was a walk-on there. I wasn’t recruited by anyone. So I just..went and just…ran on the beach by where my first school was. I got to surf and hang out. I just kind of felt like I needed to get out of there. There’s something better for me, literally. So I just told my coach I was done and transferred to Azusa without even telling–I didn’t even tell the head coach, Phil Wolf at Azusa. I just kinda…I called him late in the Spring. I was like, “Hey, can I come try out?” He let me try out. So he let me walk on. I don’t know. Just–a change needed to happen, so from my old school, but I guess it worked out.
TSG: It kinda seems to happen a lot over there. We recently interviewed Justin Braun. And he’s another big guy and he said he wasn’t really recruited much out of high school either. Did you try to contact other schools to try to get some more looks?
Steven: No. My senior year of high school I was on a pretty good soccer high school team. We won the state championships or whatever. I wasn’t like a big part of the team really. I didn’t play like the last half of the season with my club team. They didn’t want me to come back. So I was just kind of off soccer–whatever.
I’ll just go to Point Loma and surf and hang out really and just try to experience college. And them I’m like, well they have a soccer team I might as well try. So… two weeks before I just called, I called… before their training camp and they let me come walk on. It happened at both schools, Point Loma and Azusa. I was done. After Point Loma, I had a little bit of a falling out with the coach.
Not really, it was just…something needs to change. So I was like, dude, I’ll just transfer to Azusa. I need to get out of this place. I don’t need soccer. I could be done. And …literally, that’s kinda still how l am today. Soccer doesn’t… define who I am, you know? I mean that you hear, I bet people say that a lot, I’m sure, but I really try and live it and make it more about soccer. So I don’t know, that’s kind of where I’m at still.
TSG: What were your first impressions of him [Lenhart]?
Coach Phil Wolf: He showed some ability and I thought he was a decent enough player for me to give him a roster spot, but I didn’t think much of him past that. Kind of, he’s good enough to make our team. Let’s give him a roster spot. Let’s see if he can develop into something.