Having played two seasons with the Chicago Fire PDL side, the Naperville product returns to his hometown club following four years with the LA Galaxy (2010-2013) and an additional season with former Fire head coach Bob Bradley at Stabæk in Norway.
“It’s very exciting,” Stephens told Chicago-Fire.com Monday. “I’ve been a fan of the club for a long time -- since the inaugural season I’ve been following the team. To get this opportunity is something I didn’t think I could pass up. I had a good experience playing with the Fire PDL team, I have connections to the club and to the area so it seemed like a really good opportunity for me.”
“Michael’s a guy that brings a winning mentality to our club,” said Yallop. “He’s someone that I got to see a lot of during my time in San Jose and became a good pro with the Galaxy. He continued that with Bob in Norway this last season and is a nice addition to our roster as we keep building for next season.”
The 25-year-old midfielder is well-seasoned in MLS, having played in 94 matches over four seasons with the Galaxy. He also featured as a substitute in the club’s 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup winning campaigns.
“I learned a lot in that four years [with the Galaxy] and I hope to continue going forward,” Stephens said. “That was a great team to start out with, there were a lot of good examples of how to handle yourself, how to train and how to be a pro there.”
But as playing time lessened towards the end of his contract with the Galaxy, Stephens decided to give it a go abroad this past year when Bradley, newly appointed as head coach of Stabæk, came calling.
“I weighed my options and when I got the opportunity to play for Bob, it was another one I couldn’t pass up. To learn from a guy like that, obviously as a Fire fan, I was excited to play for him. Beyond that, it was a good for me to get a lot of match experience.
Stephens appeared in all 30 of De Blaa’s TIppeligaen matches this season and led the side with seven assists as the club finished ninth in the 16-team league.
“It was good for me to go over and play every game and learn from Bob who was a really big influence on me. He really helped me to develop a lot, from the day I got there to the day I left, I took some good strides.”
If a former LA Galaxy player coming home to the Fire sounds familiar, that’s because Mike Magee did it about 18 months ago. The 2013 MLS MVP has a good rapport with Stephens. They knew each other well before their time with the Galaxy and even lived across the street from one another in LA.
“Michael’s been wanting to play for the Fire for a while,” Magee told Chicago-Fire.com. “He’s a true Chicago guy, he loves the city and most of the time in LA it was me and him in the locker room talking about how great Chicago was. He’s a guy that has a lot of pride in wearing the jersey.”
Magee specifically pointed to the intangibles Stephens will bring to the Fire.
“He’ll probably be the fittest guy on the team and his competitiveness is going to piss a lot of people off which is a good thing. He’s that guy in training when guys are trying to slow down, he never stops. He’s a winner. His attributes make him an amazing addition to our group.”
While Stephens spent most of his time with the Galaxy playing wide, his tendency was to tuck in more than a regular winger. Yallop wouldn’t pinpoint where he would most likely deploy Stephens but both he and Magee agreed that the Fire’s newest signing could play throughout the midfield.
The way his game his evolved in his five-year professional career has made him well-rounded enough to do so.
“The thing I’ve noticed most over time is that I’ve become a better defender,” Stephens said. “I can cover a lot of ground, I have a good fitness level and I work for the team.
“In my first season in LA and last season in Norway I had a good number of assists and so I showed the capability of being able to play a good final pass and now can do more on defense. The fans can look for a player that’s going to give a lot for the team and I think they’ll be pleased with the effort.”