SAN JOSE, Calif. — Khari Stephenson played in a number of spots last year while making the most appearances of any field player for the San Jose Earthquakes. Yet that same versatility may be working against him.
The 2012 Quakes are currently down a couple of quarts in terms of forwards: Chris Wondolowski just rejoined the club from US national team duty, Sercan Güvesinik still needs his visa paperwork, Alan Gordon is rehabbing after two offseason surgeries and Steven Lenhart is being reined in tightly as he rounds back into form after missing half of last season.
So Stephenson, an attacking midfielder by trade and nature, has been asked to reprise his role as an emergency target man — a job he took on for the last couple months of 2011 — during San Jose’s training camp.
That wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that San Jose has brought in highly touted Colombian international Tressor Moreno to take over as the club’s midfield maestro. And it’s tough for Stephenson to make an impression as a midfielder when he’s playing up top in all the drills and scrimmages.
Head coach Frank Yallop said on Tuesday that he does see using Stephenson more as a midfielder than a forward once the whole team is healthy and on hand, but he doesn’t agree with the notion that Stephenson’s chances of earning playing time are diminished by not training in that position.
“I know what he can do,” Yallop said of the Jamaican. “I thought he played well for us last year, but again, we had to get better as a whole group. Bringing in players in different spots, it looks a lot better than it did this time last year. And I think that we’re excited about that. Khari will fit into wherever we end up putting him, and it’s up to him to take the spot and keep it.”
The 31-year-old Stephenson — who scored five goals and added four assists in 31 matches last year — toed the party line, even though he did allow that forward might not be his best fit.
“It’s not my ideal position based on my qualities, but it’s what the team needed at the time and I think I did a good job helping the team when they needed it most,” Stephenson said of his work down the stretch. “Wherever they want to use me, I’m more than happy to go and give my all, my 100 percent to help the team do the best that they can.”
Yallop and general manager John Doyle have worked hard this year to pull their team together in training camp rather than waiting for the summer transfer window to call in the cavalry. Given that, maybe it’s inevitable that potential selection logjams — a good problem to have, from a coach’s perspective — should crop up.
“We’ll see how Tressor gets on,” Yallop said. “There’s no guarantee for spots for anybody. They’ve got to play well and earn their spot. As you know from last year, I’m not afraid to make that clear. ‘May the best man win,’ if you like.”
Stephenson looks forward to that chance.
“Competition always helps,” Stephenson said. “People know that they have to be on their game. If they slip up, there’s someone else who can pick up and do the job.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.