SAN JOSE -- Major League Soccer fans have got it wrong when it comes to Earthquakes forward Steven Lenhart.
The league's most reviled player might be soccer's nicest guy.
The striker with wild blond locks has come to personify San Jose's get-under-the-skin grittiness that has led to a record season heading into the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals Sunday against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
But Lenhart, 26, also embodies the Quakes' egoless locker room by treating praise like an unwelcomed guest. His high school coach in Orange County saw the paradox years ago.
"You just want to hold him for a while and ask, 'Hey, are you sure you're the same kid?' " Kino Oaxaca said.
Yes he is.
It seems Lenhart never met a midair collision he didn't like, even when it leaves him sprawled on the grass reeling in pain. But he usually is the first one to check on an opponent.
"You always hate playing against him, but everyone wants him on their team," said FC Dallas' Andrew Jacobson, a former star at Cal and Gunn High-Palo Alto.
Earthquakes center back Jason Hernandez knows which forward strikes the most terror into defenders' hearts.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Lenhart's the guy," he said. "People don't want to see him on their schedule for the simple fact that he's going to try harder than you. He doesn't have a bone in his body that is going to relinquish anything to anyone."
Lenhart and fellow target man Alan Gordon have become known as the "Bash Brothers" for the thundering collisions inside the penalty area. Sometimes teams get so rattled they let down their guard just long enough to allow MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski to strike.
Wondolowski (27 goals), Gordon (13) and Lenhart (10) became MLS' most prolific scoring force this year with a total of 50 goals. Only four teams outscored the trio, who each had career highs in 2012.
More than one coach left the field this year in abject frustration, claiming referees let the Bash Brothers play too aggressive. Lenhart tuned out the noise while continuing his wrecking-ball assault on defenses that helped the Earthquakes (19-6-9) win the Supporters' Shield and earn the top seeding throughout the playoffs.
"It's OK with me if people want to make judgments," he said. "I know refs don't think I'm dirty and cheat and the players don't think that as well."
Oaxaca said it's all part of a plan to distract defenders.
"A lot of times they don't get he's doing that on purpose to take the focus away from the game," the coach said. "Then he plays soccer he way he knows how to play."
Lenhart has blossomed in his fifth MLS season after taking one of the bumpiest roads imaginable to the professional ranks. He barely started at Esperanza High and is not in the school's hall of fame.
Heck, Lenhart even got replaced at second base in Little League by a girl -- the manager's daughter.
Lenhart attended Point Loma Nazarene College near San Diego because the school is located next to some of California's best surfing breaks, not because of soccer.
The surfer/snowboarder/skateboarder walked on to the team, then transferred to Azusa Pacific -- another small school in the soccer hinterlands -- after a year. Then-Azusa coach Philip Wolf didn't know what position Lenhart played.
"I just gave him a roster spot," he said.
Lenhart played well as a sophomore reserve. But Wolf tried to recruit a bona fide striker for the next year, until a spring scrimmage when Lenhart dominated in a game against highly regarded UC Santa Barbara.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward also had a late growth spurt as he helped Azusa reach three consecutive NAIA championship games.
Yet Lenhart wasn't even following the MLS draft the day the Columbus Crew picked him in 2008. He was a part-time starter for the Crew for three years. By 2011 Lenhart wanted to return to the West Coast to be closer to his family.
San Jose snapped up Lenhart, who immediately gave the Earthquakes a tougher exterior. But the forward missed much of the season while taking a family leave after his father's death.
He returned ready to go from the moment training camp opened this season. Lenhart has rewarded Quakes management for their patience by giving everything he has.
"Most forwards like to be pretty and elegant but he does a lot of dirty work that helps the team a lot," said Jacobson, Dallas' midfielder. "His style is unlike anyone in the league."
That goes beyond the field for the free spirit who plays guitar and piano. Lenhart lives in Santa Cruz so he can surf and practice stand-up paddleboarding.
"If you tell him what to eat, when he has to go to bed or whether he should surf or not he won't execute as well," said Wolf, now Point Loma's coach.
Not a problem under coach Frank Yallop who rarely gets hung up on personalities as long as players work hard. Yallop even let his son go surfing with Lenhart.
This is a wave the Earthquakes hope to ride for a long time.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.