CHICAGO -- Last week, Michael Stephens found himself lined up against the Norwegian side whose kit he was wearing just a few short months ago.
On Friday, he’ll make his return to the StubHub Center, where he spent his first four seasons as a pro, only this time heading to the visitors locker room.
No word yet if the men’s soccer program at UCLA, Stephens’ alma mater, has found its way on the Chicago Fire’s early-season schedule.
But even as Stephens runs into familiar faces during the Fire’s fixtures against Stabaek IF and LA Galaxy, any sense of homecoming he’s felt pales in comparison with the actual homecoming the Naperville native has enjoyed since signing with his hometown MLS club.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Stephens said of his return to the Chicagoland area. “It’s definitely the happiest I’ve been as far as a personal standpoint. Just being here and seeing familiar faces and people that I know all the time, it’s been great.”
In fact, Fire supporters may be hard-pressed to find someone more excited to have been in wintry Chicago over the last three months. After nearly a decade away from home developing as a player and person, Stephens wasted little time signing on with the Fire when the opportunity presented itself last offseason.
Stephens first left home to attend the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla., before moving on to a successful college career at UCLA, where he earned Pac-12 (then Pac-10) Player of the Year honors as a junior in 2008.
Stephens’ stellar play with the Bruins -- coupled with his two seasons with the Chicago Fire PDL squad -- caught the attention of LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, who selected Stephens with the 16th overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft and inserted Stephens into at least 20 matches in each of the next four seasons.
“Bruce was great, I actually had his son (Kenny) coach me at UCLA and then played for Bruce as a professional,” Stephens said. “I learned a lot from him as well as the assistant coaches, they did a great job helping me become a better player and I’ll be grateful to them for a long time.”
Stephens' impending return to his old stomping grounds will reunite him with many of his former teammates and coaches, including Arena.
"I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of the people, I have a lot of people that I'm close to still there," said Stephens. "It's basically the same team that I left, or a very similar team, everyone there had a big effect on me when I was becoming a professional."
After four seasons, Stephens traded in sunny SoCal for the Norwegian Tippeligaen and signed on to play for another former U.S. Men’s National Team head coach, Bob Bradley, at Stabaek. Stephens was a key figure in the Stabaek midfield, leading the club in assists during an impressive 2014 season for the rising squad.
“I’ve known Mike a long time, it goes back to Chicago Sockers days when my kids all played for the Sockers and Mike and his brothers played for the Sockers,” Bradley told Chicago-Fire.com last week. “For us last year, Mike was a real plus. He’s a competitor, he comes every day excited for training and he made a real contribution to our team. I think he can do the same thing for the Fire and I know how excited he is to play professional soccer back in his home city.”
The role Stephens assumed in his stint with Stabaek is one he would like to replicate with his new MLS side.
“I was one of the more experienced players in a young team [at Stabaek], especially at the beginning of the season, so I brought some experience and tried to do a good job picking out the pass in the attacking third,” Stephens said. “I see myself as a two-way midfielder that links up the play, plays good defense, keeps people around me organized. I try to be a simple player, vocal, good on the ball, and good at putting pressure on the ball when the other team has it.”
Stephens displayed many of those attributes when he started and played 75 minutes for the Fire in a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers last Wednesday. He featured in an advanced midfield position and was active on the ball throughout the scrimmage.
“I thought we did well, we were unfortunate not to win the match, but for me personally I thought I had a strong performance,” Stephens said. “It’s never easy when you’re playing with a new group, some trialists on the field, but I thought we showed well for ourselves and made some decisions tough on the coaching staff.”
Come Friday’s season-opener, Frank Yallop and his staff will assemble an attacking midfield that could be without the speedy David Accam, currently nursing a groin strain suffered in Portland. Should Yallop call on the man familiar with the StubHub Center grounds, either for the Starting XI or off the bench, Yallop knows he’ll be inserting a player eager to see his hometown club return to MLS glory.
“Like I said, from the point of view of being home for the first time in a while and being able to represent the Fire, it’s been awesome,” Stephens said, “so hopefully the stuff on the field can follow that.”