|Transcript (7/21) Profile of Khari Stephenson|
|July 21, 2005|
Jamaica heights on international stage for Eph Stephenson
By Ben Fleming North Adams Transcript
Kasey Keller was beaten. The veteran United States goalkeeper, charged with keeping a clean sheet during last Saturday's Gold Cup quarterfinal meeting with Jamaica at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, almost certainly knew it.
More importantly, Khari Stephenson knew it. The former Williams College star and 2004 graduate, recently ensconced as a starting member of his Caribbean homeland's national soccer team, had a perfect view of the 58th minute free kick he lined up from just outside the 18-yard-box. He had a direct line of sight on his soundly-struck effort as it rifled toward the far post of Keller's net, and a clear sense that he'd fired his team, trailing the hosts 2-0 at the time, onto the scoreboard at long last.
Then, the cruel clang.
"Fortunately for [U.S. midfielder Ben] Olsen and his teammates," ESPN's Marc Connelly wrote afterwards, "Khari Stephenson's shot slammed off the right post on the ensuing free kick."
It was a detail that got Stephenson's name included in all the postgame writeups; the very model of a dubious distinction. All the same reports described a Jamaican side lacking in energy being bounced from the international tournament courtesy of a 3-1 loss to the Americans.
"If you saw our three previous games prior to the U.S. game, it was like we were a completely different team," said Stephenson, reached Tuesday by phone after a training session with his club side, the Kansas City Wizards of the MLS. "It was a bunch of different players. Some of that could have been contributed to by the jet lag, and everyone was frustrated by [travel problems], but it was very lethargic."
It was no idle decision, however, for the Reggae Boyz to look to Stephenson, 24, when the chips were on the line. For four successive Williamstown autumns, each deadball opportunity that coach Mike Russo's squad happened upon was an occasion for celebration, a signal for crowds to quickly become short of breath. The forerunners of a Jamaican contingent that treated the Berkshires to the most pleasing brand of soccer these mountains have ever seen, 2003 Williams graduates Alex Blake and Josef Powell were both known for an ability to bend the ball into the net, flashy cleats glimmering all the while.
The sense of anticipation that awaited a blast from Stephenson, however, was palpable like none other. Blessed with leg strength that was almost comically unique in a Division 3 setting, the two-time NCAA All-America selection was willing to tee up an effort from anywhere on the field, a long-range inclination that kept opposing keepers up at night and Cole Field audiences on the edges of their seats.
From 25 yards out, with an open look? It was almost too easy.
That, along with 15 goals in each of his junior and senior campaigns and the two NESCAC Player of the Year awards that come with such feats, led to him becoming the third Eph to play soccer professionally, selected by the Chicago Fire of Major League soccer in the third round of the 2004 SuperDraft. He was dealt to the Wizards a month later and has remained with the club ever since, earning a start during the team's MLS Cup defeat to D.C. United last fall.
The process that led to Stephenson's Saturday near-miss began last Nov. 16 in Columbus, Ohio, when the Jamaican national team was held to a 1-1 draw and knocked out of 2006 World Cup Qualifying. Literally sent back to the drawing board, the Reggae Boyz came up with a new plan that included the promotion of Stephenson from the Olympic (U-23) unit to the senior squad.
Its new midfielder immediately began collecting experience during this past winter's Digicel Cup, scoring goals in each of his first three appearances in the Gold Cup qualifying event, and was on the field for a 1-0 victory over Cuba on Feb. 24 that clinched Jamaica a Caribbean title.
Always the owner of a world-class boot, the role of Stephenson as the top free-kick option for his country wasn't confirmed until a training session in Los Angeles prior to Jamaica's 4-3 win over Guatemala on July 8. With longtime midfielder Andy Williams having announced his international retirement already, the opening for the alpha shooter was filled in the way such things are usually decided -- by screwing around in practice.
"I was always pretty much in the lineup for free kicks before L.A., but most of the other guys were taking them," Stephenson said. "Then before the game, they were telling me that I should take a few. The first one I hit was OK, but it could have been hit better. But then the second was just perfect, it was a rocket right into the corner, it couldn't have been better. And then they said 'Khari, why don't you take the free kicks?'"
That option came up Saturday, with Jamaica given a fantastic opportunity to climb back into the contest down 2-0. U.S. midfielder Ben Olson was tossed out of the game for his 58th minute challenge on Williams near the edge of the area, giving the Reggae Boyz a man advantage and a prime scoring opportunity.
Up stepped Stephenson.
"Usually keepers expect you to go over the wall to the near post, and it looked like he was cheating that way, so I tried for the far post," he said. "Keller recovered, but if it had been an inch down, he wouldn't have been able to get to it. But that happens sometimes."
It was a ricochet that reverberated. Jamaica's Jermaine Taylor was shown the red card soon afterwards for a nasty tackle on American star DaMarcus Beasley, who put the hosts up 3-0 with his second goal of the match in the 83rd minute. An 88th-minute tally from Ricardo Fuller did little but break up the shutout.
The most important thing for the Boyz' erstwhile playmaker is now to make sure that his dynamic exploits on the international stage have actually been noticed by club coach Bob Gansler. Stephenson has been all but shut out of the Kansas City lineup for two seasons -- his appearances during 2004's semifinals and finals were exceptions to the rule. He's made only two showings for the Wizards in 2005, and the last was an 83rd minute substitution in a 3-2 loss to San Jose on April 23.
"I've done well in practice," Stephenson said. "I've played well in reserve games, for the most part. But it's the coach's pick. Hopefully, these performances help me get a look."
After all, performances like Saturday's top showing against America's best can only bolster Stephenson's image in a domestic league that seems ripe for his brand of talented play. He already seems to be in the plans of Jamaica boss Wendell Downsell for World Cup 2010, part of a young nucleus that includes fellow MLS stalwart Damani Ralph. Current Wizards midfielders Preki, Chris Klein and Diego Guitierrez figure to have been cleared off the roster before the start of the 2006 campaign.
Then again, Stephenson is particularly aware there's no telling what the future can bring.
"Last year at this time, I wasn't playing at all," he said. "And look, I'm still here."