CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy’s Michael Stephens gets right to the point when he discusses the upcoming season. And it doesn’t have as much to do about the team as it does himself.
“Personally, it’s a really important year for me,” said Stephens, now in his fourth year since being drafted in the first round, 16th overall, out of UCLA in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. “I’ve been kind of a role player. It’s time for me step up here and define a role on this team.”
Stephens, who turns 24 in April, led all MLS rookies with eight assists in 2010, a year in which he started 21 of the 25 games in which he appeared. But the last two seasons admittedly haven’t gone quite as well. Stephens, mostly in a reserve role because of the steady play of veteran midfielders like Juninho, Marcelo Sarvas, David Beckham and Christian Wilhelmsson (the latter two now departed), had only a combined three assists in the 2011-2012 seasons while starting only 18 of the 48 regular season games in which he played.
But before anyone, specifically the Galaxy coaching staff, could forget about him Stephens let everyone know he still could be an impact player.
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Take last year’s CONCACAF Champions League matches, for example. He played in five games, including all four in the group stage of the 2012/13 competition, and had one of his finest moments last Oct. 25, when he scored the game-winning goal in a 3-2 victory over El Salvador’s Isidro Metapan.
“It was great for me,” he said. “As much as the reserve games were good, those Champions League games gave me an opportunity to play in important games, and I think I showed well in those games.
“That kind of kept me in the mix coming off the bench last year and hopefully that’s still in the back of the coaches’ minds when they’re making out the lineups early in the season.”
Stephens doesn’t criticize the Galaxy coaches for not playing him more, especially in 2012. With the way the season turned out – a second consecutive MLS Cup -- after such a horrendous start, Stephens found little to take exception to.
In other words, he said, if ain’t broke, why fix it?
“We had such a solidified lineup that there wasn’t much change in it once we found out what was working in the second half of the season,” he said. “You can’t fault the coaches there and obviously things worked out pretty well. No complaints there.
“You just have to do your part and wait for your opportunity.”
Head coach Bruce Arena has been impressed with the young veteran.
“He’s gotten better every year,” Arena said. “Our midfield’s gotten stronger, so Mike’s minutes have fluctuated throughout the years. I think he has a better feel for what he needs to do at this level.He’s also gotten much better athletically. He’s physically stronger, he’s always had great endurance and it’s even better now.”
Stephens said he’s confident that fitness will help him reach his goal for this season.
“It’s to get a starting position this year,” he said. “I think I’m ready to do it. That’s the goal.”