Stephens steps up, gives Fire a big spark
Chicago Fire coach Frank Yallop doesn't want to consider central midfielder Michael Stephens a surprise for his play so far this season.
He expected good things out of the native of the Western suburbs all along.
"Not a surprise," Yallop said after training Thursday. "Obviously, I coached against him, and then working with him, he's a good player. All the facets of the game, he has. He's intelligent. He moves the ball quickly. Maybe he can finish more, but we don't want him to do that. We want him just to move that ball around, work hard when the other team has it. And he does that."
The work Stephens and rookie Matt Polster have done in central midfield has been a big reason the Fire (2-3-0, 6 points) won its last two games after losing its first three.
"We had opportunities to play a lot in the preseason because we were both on the second team for the most part," Stephens said of his partnership with Polster.
When Stephens and Polster stepped up, they made Brazilian midfielder Alex expendable, and he was traded to Houston on Monday for speedy forward Jason Johnson.
Stephens -- who was born in Hinsdale and lived in Lisle, Woodridge and Naperville while growing up, then attended Benet Academy his freshman year before joining the U.S. youth residency program in Florida -- played four seasons for the Los Angeles Galaxy, winning two MLS Cups. He left Major League Soccer for a season to play for former Fire and U.S. coach Bob Bradley at Stabaek in Norway.
"I liked him in L.A.," said Yallop, who saw Stephens while coaching at San Jose. "If you look at his stats he played at least (21) games a year for (Galaxy coach Bruce Arena), and that says a lot about what he can do for a team."
Still, Stephens agreed he returned to MLS a better player for his time abroad.
"Anytime you get to go somewhere and play 30 games, starting every game, it's natural that you're going to improve," Stephens said. "If you're playing games here and there, playing through here, subbing in there, it's more difficult to progress. Finding an opportunity is good, the level there is good. Getting those games and getting that experience was definitely beneficial for me."
It's not about skill level so much as the maturity to make the right decision.
"Since I've come back I've been a little bit more confident as far as making things happen and playing forward or not being as cautious," the 26-year-old said. "Taking a few more chances, not being afraid to make mistakes, I think that's the biggest thing."
Stephens suffered a sprained right ankle in the April 4 victory against Toronto FC, leaving the game in the eighth minute. Since then games against New England and Montreal have been rescheduled, giving Stephens extra time to heal. He's using the time wisely, working on the side Thursday while his teammates trained.
"With the extra time, might as well take it," he said.
Stephens expects to be fully healed when the Fire finally does get to play again, April 24 against NYCFC at Toyota Park. He hopes to keep the starting job, even with new acquisition Victor Perez, a highly touted Spanish midfielder, and Razvan Cocis, now recovered from his own injury, trying to earn playing time also.
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