CARSON, Calif. – LA Galaxy rookie Michael Stephens did well enough in the preseason not only to win a spot on the roster but also to state his case for playing time.
The UCLA product saw action in the opening game of the season and worked his way onto the starting lineup by game number four. He then went the distance the next 13 games and appeared in every match through August.
Then, in September, Stephens vanished. He did not log a minute of game time the whole month. He didn't even dress for the 2-0 loss to New York on Sept. 24.
But finally, Stephens re-emerged, getting the start in this past weekend's 2-1 win over Chivas USA.
“It wasn’t like I was buried on the depth chart with no communication or anything,” he said. “I knew what the situation was and the coaches did a good job keeping me informed, keeping me positive. I just came out and worked hard and continued to train hard and obviously getting back on the field and having a good game was definitely a positive.”
Stephens played a key role in the Galaxy’s win over Chivas. Midway through the first half, Stephens lifted a ball from just inside the centerline over Chivas’ defense to the right side of the penalty area. Edson Buddle fired a pinpoint-accurate shot from the corner of the area, opening the scoring for the Galaxy.
“He played well, gave us a lot of energy in the midfield,” head coach Bruce Arena said. “Excellent ball (on the assist). He did well. He showed a lot of energy.”
Stephens was not the only regular dropped from the starting lineup in September. To try and shake things up and help the club snap out of a summer swoon, Arena sent both Stephens and Chris Birchall to the bench, replaced by the likes of Jovan Kirovski and Dema Kovalenko.
While Arena said those were necessary moves, he said after Sunday’s match that Stephens and Birchall—who had combined for 3,330 minutes through August—could have seen more playing time last month.
“One thing that I did—and to my fault—in bringing some players back in over the last six to eight weeks, is we sat Mike down and we sat Birchall down and probably in some ways they should have played more over the last six weeks or so,” Arena said. “But that was a decision I made to bring other players into the lineup and you’ve got to do that at times.”
Overall, Stephens’ body of work remains impressive. He has played in 23 games for a total of 1,719 minutes, which ranks third among rookies. He has scored one goal and tallied eight assists thus far.
“Maybe I needed a little breather, getting tired and now I feel refreshed,” Stephens said. “I’m good and ready to go for this late push and then the playoffs so physically I feel good and I’m happy to be back playing.”
There is no indication yet what role Stephens will play in Thursday's match away to the Philadelphia Union (5 pm PT, ESPN2). He could start again; he could be on the bench. But either way, his time away in September reminded him that he had a lot to show despite his track record of success in 2010.
“Not being in there I knew I had something more to prove. It was a good time to get refreshed, refocused and definitely felt that I needed to put in a good performance after being on the bench in the last few games.”