Stephenson surprising at forward spot for Earthquakes

Khari Stephenson and Jalil Anibaba

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The large majority of Khari Stephenson’s soccer life has been spent in the midfield, so it’s not all that surprising when the San Jose Earthquakes’ five-goal scorer says that he’s “never comfortable playing with my back to goal.”

Be that as it may, the results Stephenson has been putting up as a target man alongside 2010 Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski have been making Quakes coach Frank Yallop considerably more comfortable about his team’s offensive situation.

Either Wondolowski or Stephenson has scored in each of San Jose’s last five matches, a run in which the Quakes have gone 1-1-3 after suffering eight shutouts in their previous 12 games.

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“He looks dangerous up there, and I think that’s a tribute to him,” Yallop said of Stephenson. “He didn’t say, ‘Oh, I want to play midfield,’ and [moan] about it. He just wants to play. So he gets his chance up front; it’s that or nothing right now. And I think that he’s took it and done well.”

With five goals in 27 appearances, Stephenson has set a new personal best this year in terms of single-season scoring. And he is getting the hang of playing the hold-up role that Steven Lenhart (family leave of absence) and Alan Gordon (recovering from surgery) can’t right now.

“I’m a versatile player, I can do either [midfield] or [forward],” Stephenson said. “It’s just [a matter of] being comfortable in the position. It’s something that the team needs and I have the qualities that can help the team in that role. ... I’m working on it, and it’s been paying off for us.”

At 6-foot-1, Stephenson has the size to serve as a target. And he has meshed well with Wondolowski, who remains an outside contender to repeat as the league’s leading scorer, tied for fourth with 11 goals, two behind D.C. United’s Dwayne De Rosario.

While it’s not exactly the tandem that Yallop drew up in the beginning of the season, it’s worked better than maybe anyone had a right to expect.

“I think Wondo and I, we’ve been playing better together game after game, and that’s what it is – chemistry,” Stephenson said. “Because you can put the best forward in the world on a team, and if the players don’t play well together, then it’s not going to work.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com.