Lost in all the news of Freddie Ljungberg’s high-profile move from Seattle to Chicago Friday afternoon is the familiar face the club will see Sunday night when the Fire visit league leaders Los Angeles Galaxy.
The face is that of Michael Stephens, a midfielder that came up through the Chicago Fire player development system and who is now thriving in his first professional season with the Galaxy, leading all rookies in assists with seven.
The Fire’s Director of Player Development John Dorn is not surprised by the Naperville native’s early success in Major League Soccer.
“Everything you’re seeing from Mikey now with the Galaxy are the same kind of things we saw from him when he for us,” said Dorn. “He’s very skilled, very crafty, very busy – a great interior player with a lot of bite. People thought at some points that maybe physically he wasn’t up to the challenges of the professional level – he certainly answered those doubters which we knew all along.”
Playing for the Fire Premier teams from 2007-08, the UCLA product appeared in eight matches for the PDL team and was part of the side that took the Super-20 North American championship.
Given his local ties and his play for team during those his two seasons at Toyota Park, the Fire had plans on selecting Stephens in January’s MLS SuperDraft but the Galaxy snatched the U.S. youth international with the 16th pick of the draft when the Fire thought they could take him later on.
“We’ve always liked Mikey. Frank’s known him certainly – being local it was a great thought to get him with us. When he was here he showed he had the ability to get to the next level and when he got the chances to train with the first team the last few years he grabbed it. Unfortunately the Galaxy grabbed him in the first round before we had a chance to get him. We were hoping to steal him maybe a bit later than that but they obviously knew about him with him playing in their backyard. As much as we tried to keep Mikey under the radar, he’s too good of a player – he wasn’t going to be.”
The problem is an issue the Fire have faced with a number of quality players that have spent part of their college summers with the team since the club started fielding a side in the PDL in 2001. With Major League Soccer’s Homegrown Player Initiative starting to pay dividends, it’s something Dorn expects the club will have to worry about much less in the future.
“If three years ago what we have in place now with our player development system, we probably would have had Mike in with our Academy and then would have been able to protect him from the draft. Things are changing now. It wasn’t a missed opportunity with him, it’s just something we weren’t able to take advantage of yet. Maybe someday he will be back in Chicago – we all like him and certainly his value has increased as the season’s progressed, but players like Mike are in our Academy now and those are the type of guys we won’t have to worry about losing to another MLS team – they’ll stay home and play for us.”
With the Fire winning the USSFDA U16 National Championship just over two weeks ago, the club’s future certainly looks bright.