SANDY, Ut. - Sunday Stephen has played football everywhere.
He’s come a long way from his home in Lagos, Nigeria; playing for eight different clubs across three separate continents over the course of 11 years before landing in Salt Lake City. He has been exposed to many different playing styles and cultures. All of the countries, clubs and matches have made him the player he is today; a versatile, hardworking menace that has slotted perfectly into Real Salt Lake’s midfield.
The man they call “Sunny” has a stockpile of frequent flier miles stored up and a wealth of experience from the many stops made during his playing career.
“I started playing in Spain,” Sunny says. “From Spain I moved to Israel. From Israel I moved to Bulgaria. From Bulgaria to Turkey and from Turkey, here. I’ve gone everywhere, from here to there. I would say it’s a great experience and great knowledge for me in the game of football. Getting to know everyone better, getting to know different coaches and different styles of play in every place I’ve been to and taking part in each to make myself mature in the game.”
Sunny is fluent in four languages: two dialects from his native country and English and Spanish. Although he does know the basics of French and German, he isn’t willing to consider himself fluent just yet.
Because of the time spent in Spain as a youth, Stephen was able to play for both the Spanish and Nigerian national teams. His face lights up as he tells what it was like to play on the biggest competitive stage for the two countries he loves.
“Wow it was a great experience for me, representing Spain at the U-19, U-20 World Cup and U-21 [levels], and then the senior Nigerian team. I am so glad for the opportunity that the Spanish government and the Football Association gave to me to showcase myself and for people to know me. I am very glad and happy to be what I am today.”
It was over two years ago when RSL first made contact with Stephen. They expressed interest in bringing the talented midfielder over, so he did some advance research. He saw that Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, both US national team regulars, were on the roster and his interest was piqued. However, Stephen and the Utah club couldn’t arrive at anything concrete so he moved on. That was until general manager Craig Waibel took over the reins and RSL came calling a second time.
“Andy [Williams] brought this one to the table and showed it to the group and everyone agreed that this is a player that we should certainly delve into a little bit farther and thankfully it worked out,” Waibel said.
Waibel says that it wasn’t a surprise to him how quickly the midfielder has been able to fit in with the team. The second year GM and his staff went deep into Sunny’s background and made sure he was the right addition to the team.
“We did our research on him. We did everything we needed to do to make sure that this wasn’t a surprise,” Waibel adds. “He knows who he is off the field which gives him the belief of what he is on the field. It’s a very valuable asset when a player can self-evaluate and stay within their bounds and Sunny is very, very good at playing to his strengths. I think this is a collection of both sides, both Sunny and RSL, doing their homework, knowing exactly what the fit would be and the transition was easier because of the amount of work that was done before Sunny landed, both on his end and our end.”
Once he was aboard and the season started, it didn’t take long for Stephen to make an impact with his new club. In RSL’s home opener against the Seattle Sounders, he went the full 90 minutes and scored the equalizer in the 43rd minute when he headed in Joao Plata’s corner kick. He even drew the foul that set up the eventual game-winner, earning himself a spot on the MLS Team of the Week as well as a disciplinary fine for just a bit of embellishment.
Despite the goal in the opener, Stephen noted his true role is to support the rest of the team.
“Actually I'm not a goal scorer,” Sunny says. “I’m a defensive midfielder. At times you just need to take the chances. Go up front and try to get a goal if it comes, but if it doesn’t, it was never my job to score a goal. The last goal I scored was in Spain in 2013. So I just try to help the team as long as I am on the pitch.”
It’s not hard to see the quality Stephen brings to the team. He flies up and down the pitch, disrupting passing lanes and quickly distributing the ball in the attack.
RSL head coach Jeff Cassar says that Sunny has fit in perfectly with the team. His ability to speak both English and Spanish has allowed him to communicate with everyone and his professionalism has been evident since the very first day. Cassar has been impressed with what he’s seen so far, but also says there’s more to come.
“I just think his intensity is first class,” Cassar says. “You just watch him and he’s patrolling everywhere, looking to get into tackles and cut out passing lanes. It’s not surprising, but his passing is very good and going to get better and [Sunny] has a good range of passing over short distance, but can also play the balls into the corner and that’s something that adds to our attack where we can change the point of attack quicker than before.”
RSL teammate Tony Beltran takes it one step further.
“He’s more of a destroyer, but he’s quality on the ball though as well,” Beltran says. “He breaks up a lot of plays and he keeps possession for us when we need to. It’s been quite awhile since we’ve had a midfielder that’s his like and I think in this system he’s very important.”
When Sunny is not playing soccer he likes to watch basketball and go sightseeing. However, he’s yet to get out and see everything Utah has to offer. He’s waiting for his family to join him so they can do it together.
The fact that Utah was a great place to raise kids was a big reason why Sunny and his wife decided to make the move to RSL. His family has stayed in Nigeria during his playing career throughout Europe and although they would frequently come to visit him, they never joined him full time. Sunny plans to bring his wife and two children to Utah as soon as he can settle down, putting down roots in a community as a family for the first time in his professional career.
Sunny has found a place in Draper, Utah, about 15 minutes south of Rio Tinto Stadium. Although it doesn’t have the rich history of Valencia or the breathtaking Mediterranean views of Alanya, Greece, he’s found somewhere he can finally call home.
“Actually people here have been cool,” Sunny says. “I’ve been seeing a little of that. People are kind. People are cool. You get help from all different angles and I hope that it lasts a really long time.”