Seven months ago, Khari Stephenson was a soccer player without a team. The Chicago Fire had drafted the Williams College star in the third round of the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, but come April, they were not going to offer the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Jamaican a contract.
So Stephenson sent his agent on a mission to find him a club.
"Kansas City was one of the interested teams. I came out here and tried out, and they wanted me," said Stephenson. "But Chicago still had my rights, so they had to do a trade."
On April 7, the Wizards gave up the natural third-round pick in the 2005 MLS SuperDraft to Chicago for the 23-year-old. Since then, Stephenson has just been taking things one day at a time -- though his star has blossomed over the past few weeks.
"To be honest, I'm just here trying to work hard," he said. "I'm trying to make a living out of it."
The hard work has finally paid dividends for the rookie who played only 44 minutes over a span of three matches during the regular season. In the Wizards two playoff matches thus far, Stephenson has garnered 107 minutes, and contributed the critical first tally in Kansas City's furious three-goal eruption to win their Western Conference Semifinal series against defending MLS Cup champion San Jose Earthquakes.
Helping him get through the rough patch of no playing time was teammate, countryman and roommate Shavar Thomas, who was also acquired by the Wizards before the season began.
"He's helped a lot to keep me up 'cause I've been down early in the season not getting playing time," Stephenson said. "He's just been telling me to 'stay in there, keep playing, sooner or later you'll get your chance.' And when you get it, make use of it.'"
While he wasn't getting time with the Wizards, he was brought into the Jamaican national team training camp recently as they prepared for a World Cup qualifier. Stephenson represented his country at the under-17, under-20 and under-23 (Olympic) levels -- including a quality performance in the FIFA World Youth Championship in 2001. Gansler pointed to his national experience as a boost to his confidence -- which he then brought to his club team.
In hitting for the all-important early goal against the Earthquakes, Stephenson used his quick feet to quickly turn away from two defenders at the penalty spot and then slot the home his shot.
"Growing up in Jamaica there are a lot of skillful guys down there, so the quick feet are something that has always been there," he said.
The question is, will the latest Wizards catalyst see the pitch come Friday night when Kansas City takes on the Los Angeles Galaxy for the right to represent the Western Conference in MLS Cup 2004?
"Right now [the chances of playing] are pretty high, but anything can happen. I'm not going to jump the gun and say I did well last weekend so I should be starting," Stephenson said. "If I don't start, I don't start; if I do, that's great, and I'll try to do something to help the team win."
Spoken like someone just trying to be successful. And that's all the Wizards and Stephenson want.
"The team wins and we get through to the final. I can't expect anything better than that," he said.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.