MATHEW WAGNER - Thursday, March 27, 2014
Michael Stephens' journey to Europe and Stabӕk started with an e-mail.
Following the MLS SuperDraft, Stephens was looking for a new challenge, as he and the LA Galaxy, for whom the 24-year-old midfielder played since coming out of UCLA in 2010, mutually parted ways.
Stephens had always desired to head to Europe, and with the help of his agent at Wasserman Media Group, he managed to get into contact with former United States men's national team coach, Bob Bradley, about trialing at his club, Stabӕk.
"My agent had a quick conversation with Bob, and I had known him and followed him myself," Stephens said. "I sent him an e-mail, and I explained to him my situation: I was free, I was out of contract and if they were willing to give me a shot, I'd love to.
"It moved pretty quickly from there just as the trial goes, and then it was up to me to show the rest of the people at the club that it would be worthwhile to bring me here."
The Hinsdale, Ill. native definitely impressed during his one-week trial in early February, including a two-goal performance in a friendly win over Hønefoss, and eventually signed with Stabӕk early in March to help the promoted team survive the season in the Norwegian Tippeligaen and a one-year hiatus.
Stephens impressed so much, in fact, that Stabӕk's supporters raised money to pay a portion of the American's salary, and because of that, he gained the title of "supporters' player."
"I think it was based on how I was playing in the trial - just playing hard and playing passionately," Stephens said. "They liked the way that I was playing as well as the experience (playing in a top division)."
While the fundraising showed how much the club wanted to bring Stephens into the fold, it also highlighted the club's financial difficulties in recent years. Two years ago in the club's last season in the Norwegian top flight, the Blue Ones sold off most of its talent to save money.
One player who left during that mass exodus, Mikkel Diskerud, is a former teammate of Stephens from the U.S. Under-20 and U23 teams, and the two met multiple times to discuss the situation at the Oslo-based team.
"I spoke to him when he was in L.A. with the national team and then again when I was in Oslo we went out for dinner and caught up," Stephens said. "That was definitely a good connection as far as getting some insight on the club with the way they do things."
The situation is that Stabӕk has an extremely young and small roster, which consists of 19 players with an average age of just less than 23 years old. Only four players are older than 25, and many of the guys don't have top-flight experience.
There are some veterans in the squad, though. Stephens said the team has experience in the right places, such as 36-year-old journeyman Jon Inge Høiland, who has 158 Tippeligaen appearances and 25 international caps for Norway to his name. Also, Stephen's partner in central midfield, Enoch Kofi Adu, won a Danish Superliga title at Nordsjӕlland.
While this isn't a lot of experience, Stephens pointed to the progress already made by his teammates as they try to implement Bradley's plan for the team, which stresses pressing on defense and more possession on offense.
"The younger guys are good players - it's not like they're young, untalented players," Stephens said. "I think the learning curve will be pretty quick for most of them. Even in the preseason, I've already seen progression for them. So, I think it's looking pretty bright, actually."
Although the optimism is high at Stabӕk, Tippeligaen experts aren't expecting much of Blue Ones, as most Norwegian media outlets have tabbed Stabӕk as a favorite for relegation back into the 1.divisjon. When the team opened up the preseason with three friendly losses, including one to local rival Bӕrum of the second tier, they didn't do much to disprove the predictions.
Beating title-favorite Rosenborg in the team's final friendly, however, has the Blue Ones believing in themselves, said Stephens, who scored a goal in Stabӕk's final two friendlies.
"We're picked in the media over here to finish in last place," Stephens said. "So, the expectations from them are obviously low, but inside the team, we're confident. I think we can surprise a lot of teams this year."