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.
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?
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.
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.
TSG: Alright man, well that’s cool. So, when you were in college what were your future plans at the time?
Steven: My future plans–I wanted to, I met a couple of guys who started, were starting, in the process of starting a non-profit in Zambia in Africa. Doing basically, like bringing in high quality bicycle parts and teaching the natives how to make these bicycles. Then just going from there and bringing them throughout the country. It was kinda …a micro-enterprise. You know, kind of a cool little business, a spinning business and paying their employees a good wage. People need bikes because transportation struggles in Zambia. So I was originally gonna go with them after my senior year in college and just live in Zambia.
TSG: How did he develop over his time there?
Coach Phil Wolf: He went from a roster spot guy to, at the time, the best player in the country at the NAIA level or one of the best players. He worked really hard and physically developed as well. When he first got there he was actually pretty skinny.
TSG: Alright, when did you start changing your plans to start trying to go to MLS?
Steven: I didn’t. I mean, that was always my plan. It still kinda is my plan. They just called me. I guess it changed when the Columbus Crew called me and told me they drafted me. I didn’t even know.
TSG: Going to an NAIA school–that’s kind of a path less traveled for a lot of MLS guys. They usually go to bigger colleges and stuff.
TSG: Did the Crew tell you anything else right before or right after they called you?
Steven: No, no. I didn’t have any idea. They just called.
TSG: So you get taken in the fourth round and then what happens when you start getting to working in MLS?
Steven: Yeah. They take me and then I moved out and just kind of started the learning curve, I guess.
TSG: How did you start adjusting to the league?
Steven: How did I start adjusting? I mean, you gotta learn from guys who have been in it. I think that’s pretty important. You gotta be coachable and work hard, I guess, pretty intensely. People are running pretty hard and tackling. It’s just kinda find your way a little bit. It takes some time and you gotta be committed, you know.
TSG: What do you think about your first three seasons in the league so far?
Steven: Man, well, its been fun soccer-wise. I think its been good. I’ve been part of two Supporters Shield winning teams. We’ve made the playoffs the three years I’ve been here. So I mean, can’t ask for much more than that, in the soccer-sense. Won the MLS Cup my first year which was cool to be a part of that. But I mean, for me, I think just the main thing is the relationships I’ve been able to form. You know, with guys who have been playing and who are legends in their countries. It’s like, to meet some really good guys. But that’s what I value. I think that lasts a lot longer than if you’re winning, games won, and goals scored to be honest. It’s just kind of where I stand. So I’ve really enjoyed it. Its been good.
TSG: What do you think about his time in MLS? [The following answer is not a direct quote as the voice recorder died!]
Coach Phil Wolf: Said that it was a similar thing to when he showed up at Azusa. When Sigi first picked him up he worked hard and now he starts a lot at forward. It has shown the type of work he has put in and the improvements he has made.
TSG: You just said its fun to play with guys who are legends in their own country. I’m guessing that you’re talking about Schelotto.
Steven: Yeah, I’m talking about Guillermo.
TSG: I’ve heard you talk about playing with him before. How has it been playing with him this season?
Steven: Yeah, it’s been good, man. I think we’re, dude, I just enjoy it. I listen to what he has to say. He’s smart. He doesn’t have… the ideal body type for soccer, but he just makes things happen. And I respect him a lot, not just as a soccer player, but as a guy too. He’s super humble and down to earth. Yeah, so I enjoy playing with him though. He has eyes all over.
TSG: So like you said, you have made the playoffs every year that you have been in there. What’s the attitude of the team headed into this postseason?
Steven: Lets see, we’re…ready. Obviously we’ve had a rough stretch the last couple weeks. Well besides this last week, which was a good one. But, no, I think we’re all ready. The games count now. We’re excited. And I think just ready to compete is probably one of the main things. The games are fun, you know. You’re playing for something. Everyone is pretty committed, they’re really committed. Yeah.
TSG: Alright, so heading into the playoffs and kind of just in your career in general what are some of your short-term and long-term goals now?
Steven: Short and long-term. I mean I would love to win the MLS Cup this year with this team.
TSG: Well that was the easy answer!
Steven: Yeah. You know, just its always good to finish the season strong. Last year we got put out and it was kind of a bummer. I mean, you know we’re going to work for that.
Long term. Man…I want to get better, become a better finisher. I would love to play in another country somewhere to be honest. I’m not sure where or how. But yeah, just kind of hopefully I take some steps in the right direction to play at a higher level. You know if I could get the chance ever to represent my country too it’d be sweet, but I’m not stressing about it.
TSG: That brings up a couple of things. Are there any specific countries or leagues that you would like to play in in the future?
Steven: Specific leagues. No, not necessarily. Dude, I have some friends in Germany, I have some friends in South Africa, Argentina. Anywhere, dude. I’d go anywhere to be honest. Be fun to experience; experience life outside the U.S.
TSG: And a lot of times people bring your name up when it comes to playing for the U.S. What do you think whenever you see Bob Bradley calling up players like Brian Ching and Conor Casey so often?
Steven: I mean those guys are good players, really good players. I mean, it’s his decision you know, ultimately. I think he knows who’s been kind of in the system for a while, Bob Bradley. But yeah, I think every time I see Conor Casey, he probably thinks I’m weird. I always tell him how much I like his game, his work ethic and stuff. And Brian Ching too. I think he’s a really good player, really good. So I don’t think the National Team struggles for forwards at all. But yeah I would love the chance to play. I’m chillin’ though.
TSG: Well, good luck heading into the playoffs. We always like to kind of end on a lighter note.
TSG: So, what would you say is the most popular hairstyle on the team?
Steven: Popular hairstyle? We have, we got all kinds. You got Leandre, from France. He cut his hair like 4 months ago and it won’t curl back, but he..tries to do this little, like, French mullet and then… spikes on top. I think that’s, like, the most popular to be made fun of. It’s the most easy to make fun of. Gino Padula has some good hair. He doesn’t want to let go of it. I understand. No man, everyone’s got their own style. There’s a couple of guys with curls too. There’s Will, me, and then Josh…Smith. No, Josh Williams, sorry.
TSG: Are you surprised your hair style hasn’t caught on more?
Steven: I think everyone needs to get a perm to be honest. I would support that for sure. I think I would even fund that. If ever…get the whole team a perm. I would pay for everyone to get a perm.
TSG: You have a bunch of big guys on your team. Who would you say is the strongest?
Steven: The strongest?
TSG: The strongest.
Steven: I mean, in a wrestling match? I mean, I wouldn’t want to wrestle Emilio Renteria. He’s.. a bowling ball, dude. You can’t really move him. He’s got huge legs. But yeah, there’s a lot of strong guys.
Steven: The best header?
Steven: Chad. Chad is. Chad or…yeah, no. Yeah, for sure Chad. He’s so good, man. He’s so good.
TSG: Alright. I do want to thank you for your time today. You know, is there anything else that you might want to add in the end?
Steven: No, I’m good. Thanks for having me.
TSG: Alright man, thanks for talking with us today. And good luck heading into the MLS playoffs as well as the Champions League next season.
Steven: Cool, thanks. I appreciate it. Alright, later.