Entering his first season in MLS, LA Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens wasn't exactly a lock. Depth was stronger at the start of this season than at the end of last, and the 22-year-old rookie faced a tough battle to get some playing time, let alone starts.
But six games in, Stephens hasn't only been on the field consistently, he’s suddenly become a fixture in the starting lineup.
“He’s a good player and his work rate is outstanding and I think it complements our other players in the midfield,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “He’s been a big plus and I hope he continues to grow as a player."
Stephens started his third consecutive match last weekend, in the Galaxy’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia. While he showed energy from the very first moment he stepped on the field—late in the season-opener against New England—Stephens showed some flair with his passing game.
In the fourth minute, Stephens slipped a ball to Edson Buddle inside the penalty area, and Buddle found A.J. DeLaGarza in front of the goal for the game’s first goal. Stephens also was credited for an assist on the game’s third goal, as he fed Landon Donovan, who set up Buddle for his ninth goal of the season.
“His energy has really been helpful," Donovan said after the match. "He’s all over the place. He was playing a little bit tilted right and there were about 10 or 11 times I looked over and he was on the left side of the field, running, tackling or being involved in the play so he’s all over the place, defending well. ... He’s learning as he goes and he’s a smart kid, he works hard and he wants to get better.”
Over the last three seasons, the Galaxy have done well to nab strong talent with their first pick in the MLS SuperDraft. In Omar Gonzalez (2009) and Sean Franklin (2008), LA selected players who went on to win the MLS Rookie of the Year award. In 2007, the Galaxy took Robbie Findley who, though not on the club’s roster anymore, has blossomed into a standout with Real Salt Lake.
The Galaxy took Stephens with the last pick in the first round of this year’s SuperDraft. Despite being the ninth midfielder taken, he said he had anticipated at least some playing time during his rookie campaign.
“I was hoping it was going to come eventually but I didn’t know it was going to come so early in the season,” Stephens said. “Injuries obviously had an effect.”
Injuries in fact opened up a spot for Stephens. With Leonardo out for the Real Salt Lake match on April 17, DeLaGarza moved to central defense and Franklin played at right back. With a hole in the midfield, Arena elected to give Stephens the start.
And while he’s notched three consecutive starts, Stephens said he isn't taking his position on the team for granted.
“I’ve always been the guy who’s going to always try and improve," he said. "I got the start and I want to continue to not only stay in the starting lineup but push and have good games in there and just keep improving.”