At a glance, not much has changed for Michael Stephens from one summer to the next.
In 2009, he was living in Southern California and playing soccer. One year later, he still lives in Southern California and still plays soccer.
About the only difference: His team has a higher-profile now than before.
Stephens has become a fixture for the Los Angeles Galaxy following a standout collegiate career at UCLA. Having been able to stay locally has helped his transition from college to the pros.
“It’s been great. I really haven’t had any adjustment. I still have all my same old friends and people close to me so that’s made it easier,” Stephens said. “You don’t want to be dealing with a lot of off-the-field issues when you are in a new playing environment so to keep my old environment the same was good.”
Nabbed with the last pick in the first round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, Stephens has blossomed into a valuable player. Stephens, 21, has played in every regular-season game thus far, having started 13 of them. He has seven assists, second only to Landon Donovan, and his only goal thus far was a game-winner.
With his steady play—such as his performance against San Jose in Thursday night’s 2-2 draw—Stephens has seemingly catapulted himself into the front of the MLS Rookie of the Year race. That wasn’t necessarily his goal before the season, though.
“I just wanted to contribute to the team however that may be,” Stephens said. “If it was to get on the field, and obviously every player wants to get on the field, that’s always a goal and then from there try to be more productive every time I step on the field, and then once I step on the field to keep my spot. That’s my number one priority.”
As he’s been piling up the minutes, Stephens continues to impress, given the players he’s starting ahead of. Former national team standouts and European-based players such as Eddie Lewis, Jovan Kirovski and Clint Mathis have not been on the field as much as Stephens, and while injuries and fitness have played a role in that, Stephens said he’s worthy of a spot and has never felt out of place.
“Absolutely I should be on the field. I’m there for a reason... I’m on this team for a reason. I’ve been playing for a reason. I don’t really get overwhelmed,” he said. “In general I’m a pretty good worker. I put in a good 90 minutes every time [Galaxy coach Bruce Arena] puts me out there, work hard for him and do the little things right—get around the ball, play good defense as well as offensively try to keep possession and be dangerous.”
Even though he’s done well to get on the field, Stephens said the constant push from his more experienced teammates helps him not take his spot on the field as a given.
“We always have guys coming back and there’s always pressures of even being in the Starting XI so as Landon and Omar [Gonzalez] and Edson [Buddle] are back and guys are getting healthier, it’s going to be a fight for more playing time," he said. "There is always pressure anytime you are playing. There are a lot of good guys on this team so you’ve got to stay hungry.”