The San Jose Earthquakes’ flagging midfield output has officially become Khari Stephenson’s problem.
Almost a week after acknowledging their plans to bring back the former member of the Chicago Fire and Kansas City Wizards from five years’ MLS hiatus spent in Scandinavia, the Quakes formally announced the deal Wednesday. With injuries abounding, San Jose hope Stephenson can play Saturday against visiting Kansas City, although that’s dependent on getting the ITC paperwork approved in time.
Much is needed from the 29-year-old Jamaican international, who spent time with Swedish sides GAIS and AIK and most recently helped Aalesunds FK win the Norwegian Cup in 2009.
San Jose have scored only nine goals in their last 11 matches – including back-to-back shutouts in the past two weeks to Seattle and Colorado – after opening with 11 goals in their first six contests. Not surprisingly, that offensive slide has pushed the team out of playoff position for the first time since mid-April.
Quakes coach Frank Yallop has been preaching this week about the need to push forward and apply pressure to opponents, even at the risk of leaving holes in the back. He sees Stephenson as a key cog in getting that done.
“He’s a different sort of midfielder compared to what we have: A big, powerful, strong-running offensive player,” Yallop told MLSsoccer.com. “Not that he’s going to score a ton of goals, but he’s going to drive forward, with and without the ball. He’s athletic. And I think it gives us a different look in there.”
Stephenson will likely play at the point of a midfield diamond in Yallop’s preferred 4-4-2 formation. Last week in Colorado, Yallop went away from that look and fielded a 4-1-4-1 to flood the midfield and keep the Rapids from dominating possession, but the coach felt the team generated more dangerous opportunities later in the match, when it reverted to playing directly from a 4-4-2.
Stephenson joins fellow Jamaican international Ryan Johnson on the Quakes’ roster, but it’s another Caribbean star to whom Stephenson is most often compared: New England Revolution and Grenadian mainstay Shalrie Joseph.
“He kind of reminds of Shalrie, in a way,” Quakes defender Jason Hernandez told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s very composed on the ball. He can find passes with both feet. And he’s a strong presence in the middle. That’s something that any team could use, but us especially, at this point.”
Given that Joseph is a four-time member of the MLS Best XI – including each of the last three seasons – it’s not realistic to expect that kind of production. But the Quakes would be helped tremendously if Stephenson could take the intermediate step of filling the role formerly played by veteran Andre Luiz.
Since the Brazilian bowed out for the season because of his injured left knee – surgery last week successfully repaired a torn PCL and damaged MCL – the Quakes have been shut out in four of seven matches.
“Andre was a huge presence for us, connecting us and finding passes in there that maybe other guys can’t,” Hernandez said. “It might be too early to say for certain, but so far, so good. (Stephenson) looks like a more than adequate replacement. We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . On Twitter: @sjquakes