Quakes' Stephenson steps into unfamiliar role with ease

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Khari Stephenson understood why a chunk of the San Jose Earthquakes' fan base bemoaned the fact that the 31 year old remained in the club’s starting lineup Saturday against Real Salt Lake — even though target men Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon were both returning from hamstring strains.

GOAL: Stephenson nets the opener

“Honestly,” Stephenson said, “I don’t think I’m a great target guy.”

The facts might beg to differ. Stephenson bounced a header over RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando for the game's first goal in first-half injury time, then looped a soft cross from inside the penalty box to set up Chris Wondolowski’s insurance strike in San Jose’s 3-1 home victory — a victory that put the Quakes on top of the Western Conference standings at 5-1-1.

It was a vintage performance for Stephenson despite the fact that he never played as an attacking midfielder in the center of the pitch, his preferred slot. Instead, he started up top for San Jose, then dropped all the way back to holding midfielder when the Quakes brought on Lenhart in the 61st minute in place of Sam Cronin, whose ball-winning skills weren’t as necessary with RSL down to 10 men courtesy of Fabian Espindola’s straight red card in the 30th minute.

“He’s invaluable in his versatility,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said of Stephenson. “Sam was playing great, too. We just think Khari on the field gave us a better chance to score. Sam’s obviously a good possession player, but we needed to keep Khari on the pitch. . . . I think he really earns his spot.”

Stephenson scored seconds before halftime by darting into the heart of RSL’s box and converting off Steven Beitashour’s right-wing cross. But he looked dangerous at several other points as well, including a deflected blast in the 22nd minute that hit Jamison Olave before ricocheting off the near post, and a pair of long-distance free kicks that either just sailed wide (in the 37th minute, from 40 yards) or was unconvincingly parried by Rimando (43rd minute, 35 yards).

“It’s great to have a guy like that, who goes from forward to defensive mid,” Wondolowski said. “When you have someone you can utilize like that, it’s very important and a nice luxury to have. Great goal, great snap header down, and his assist was pretty sublime. He put it on a platter for me, so I liked that.”

One key to Stephenson’s success as a forward lies in a symbiotic relationship with Wondolowski. The duo started to percolate as a strike pairing late last season, when they keyed a 3-2-3 finish in which the Quakes averaged 1.63 goals per game. Wondolowski had seven goals and an assist in that span, while Stephenson added two goals and two assists.

“It’s been working for the team and we’ve been creating a lot of chances,” Stephenson said. “I think Wondo and I have been playing well together. Sometimes he’s the target guy. Sometimes I’m the target guy. But we’re always moving and creating havoc for the other team’s defense.”

Wondolowski said he wasn’t surprised by Stephenson’s deft chip, which came after the Jamaican international walked a short corner kick a few yards into RSL’s penalty area. He then spooned the ball with a high-arcing pass across the 6-yard box for Wondolowski to hammer home at the back post.

“I get to play with this guy every day. He’s beyond surprising me,” Wondolowski said. “He has one of the most powerful shots in this league, but at the same time, he can chip a ball with the best of them and have that touch as well.” 

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com.