3714_isi_stephensmichael_mlsmj052613132 Michael Janosz/isiphotos.com
Player Spotlight

Michael Stephens, 24, Joins Bob Bradley at Stabaek

The former Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder is now in Norway, where he has signed a special contract partially funded by fans. Brian Sciaretta spoke with Stabaek's new "Supporters' Player."
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
March 07, 2014
12:47 PM
WHEN BOB BRADLEY took the reins at Stabaek and became the first-ever American coach at a top-division team in Europe, speculation immediately started swirling about whether an American player would join him at the club.

Now one has. Earlier this week the former Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens signed a two-year deal with the Norwegian club.

And it’s not just any deal, either. Stabaek’s fans contributed to Stephens’ salary, and the Illinois native is now referred to as Stabaek’s “Supporters Player.”

“It obviously shows that these people have faith in me, and that is definitely a good thing from my standpoint,” Stephens told American Soccer Now. “I want to be a player that’s liked by fans and I think I’ll do them proud with the way I play.”

Stephens parted ways with the Galaxy in January and arranged a number of auditions with European clubs shortly thereafter. On his weeklong trial with Stabaek, Stephens made a strong impression, scoring two goals in a friendly win over Honefoss. Subsequent sessions with Swedish clubs GAIS and Falkenberg went well, but Stephens’ heart was set on Staebek, so he returned to Norway.

“I had a good talk with Bob and the sporting director,” Stephens said. “I took up the last foreign slot which was a little bit of an issue. But they got it done and I was pleased with how it worked out. They were really good about everything. As soon as my week was finished on trial, I wanted to stay here. We were talking the whole time.”

After his successful trial, the club’s sporting director and chairman, Inge Andre Olsen, explained to Stabaek’s supporters that Stephens would help the club. The fans responded by raising a portion of the funds necessary to complete the deal.

Olsen is pleased with the deal, noting that with Stephens, “all he wanted was to play for Bob Bradley.” In particular, Olsen liked how Stephens played with a lot of heart, and that his effort raised the level of play among his teammates.

In that respect, Olsen concludes that it’s only fitting that club supporters are raising the money for Stephens. The move was further embraced on the club’s official website, which headlined Stephens’ arrival with “Supporterspilleren!” which translates to “Supporters' Player!”

“The money makes a huge difference,” Olsen said, “When we receive such a contribution it means we can pick Michael Stephens. He is a player who has his heart outside his jersey. I am glad that it is precisely he who is a ‘supporter player.’”

With the contract now in hand, Stephens is eager to start his Tippeligaen career, which will begin with a home game against Sogndal on March 30.

Though Stephens is not particularly familiar with the Tippeligaen, there are a few familiar faces in the country. When he was on trial with Stabaek, Stephens went out to dinner with his former U.S. U-20 World Cup teammate Mix Diskerud, who plays for Rosenborg but began his career at Stabaek. Diskerud helped Stephens understand the club’s philosophy and environment.

Stephens also has a long history with Bob Bradley. They met while Stephens was growing up in Illinois and Bradley was coaching the Chicago Fire. Stephens also played on a club with Bradley’s son, Michael. When Stephens moved to California to attend UCLA, Bradley was coaching Chivas USA, and the two met up on the West Coast as well.

“I’ve known him for a long time but I’ve never played for him,” Stephens said of Bradley. “His resume speaks for itself. He’s a really good coach and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to come here–to come learn from him, pick up some of his ideas, and hopefully improve a lot.”

It's an interesting time for Stabaek because during the club’s financial difficulties, most of the top players were sold and the team’s core is now extremely young. Bradley will need to teach tactics and professionalism to young players with talent but little experience.

And Stephens, though just 24, will be a veteran presence on the club by virtue of his three years with the Los Angeles Galaxy. During that span he played alongside the likes of Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Robbie Keane, and he still has fond memories of Major League Soccer.

“I enjoyed my time there a lot,” Stephens said of the Galaxy. “The coaching staff was amazing and those guys were extremely good to me. That’s a big club even over here. If you mention the LA Galaxy, people here know it and recognize it. It’s a really well-respected club. I was fortunate enough to play with some really good players. For that to be your first experience as a player, it’s a good thing. I definitely picked up a few things from being around those guys in terms of preparation and professionalism.”

Despite moving from a big club in a big country to a small club in a small country—the population of Norway is just over 5 million—Stephens is impressed with his young teammates and Bradley’s commanding presence.

“They’re responding well,” Stephens said. “Bob has everyone’s respect. There is no question about it. They know what he’s done and he’s coached big teams. From when I’ve been here, he’s done a great job. He puts in a lot of work and is very demanding of the players. His consistency keeps everyone’s respect. We’ve seen progress from when I’ve gotten here on trial."

"It’s working.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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