Former College soccer star Khari Stephenson ’04 recently signed a three-year Major League Soccer (MLS) contract with the San Jose Earthquakes. Stephenson was the NESCAC Player of the Year in 2002 and 2003, leading the Ephs to three consecutive NESCAC titles from 2001 to 2003. A native of Kingston, Jamaica, he began playing soccer at age four and is now living his boyhood dream by playing professionally.
“My older brother was kicking a ball around in the garage and he wanted me to try and take it from him,” Stephenson said when asked how he first became interested in the sport. “I tried and tried with no luck. I remember being so frustrated at not being able to get the ball. So, I asked him to teach me how to play.” Such was the beautiful start of what became a collegiate experience and, ultimately, a career for Stephenson.
Stephenson continued to play at Choate Rosemary Hall, a Connecticut prep school, where Mike Russo, current head coach of men’s soccer at the College, first saw him play. “We were fortunate to get him,” Russo said. “Some of the Ivies overlooked him and I was able to steal him, if you will.” Stephenson was the complete package: a well-developed combination of speed, skill, impeccable ball control and love for the game of soccer, according to Russo. He enrolled at the College and began to play in 2000. Stephenson was one of five Jamaicans on the Ephs’ roster during his time at the College.
As an Eph, Stephenson was “one of the most physically gifted players we’ve ever had,” according to Russo. Stephenson had played in the backfield at Choate, but that changed when he took to the field for Williams. “As soon as we got him here, we pushed him forward and allowed him to utilize his attacking prowess,” Russo said. This opportunity enabled Stephenson to develop his offensive skills and emerge as a leader for the Ephs.
While the team as a whole was incredibly strong, Russo said that Stephenson “was an integral part of this very talented team.” In his senior year, Stephenson led the conference, scoring 15 goals and 34 points in NESCAC play. Stephenson has also played in 31 games for the Jamaican National Team.
Ironically considering all of his moments of glory on Cole Field, Stephenson points to one of his losses as the most invigorating. “My most exhilarating game as an Eph was the NESCAC Championship game against Middlebury my freshman year [in 2000],” he said. “The game went in to quadruple overtime and we lost 1-0. That game was end-to-end action. I’m 100 percent sure that game turned many [Williams] students into soccer fans.”
Stephenson’s training as an Eph has served him well throughout his professional soccer career. Russo “instilled in us the importance of hard work and playing for your teammates,” he said. “Playing as a team and working for each other … is the key to success.”
Russo shares similar sentiments on Stephenson’s team-oriented attitude. “He wanted to perform and play well on an individual level,” Russo said, “but wanted to make sure that the team could win as well.” Russo likewise credited Stephenson’s integrity as a critical asset and believes he has the qualities needed for success in the MLS. “Of all the players in our program at the time, he had the most potential to [be in the MLS],” Russo said.
Upon graduating in 2004, Stephenson was drafted by the Chicago Fire as the 27th pick in the MLS Superdraft. He was traded to the Kansas City Wizards and remained there until September 2005, when he opted to cross the Atlantic in hopes of a European soccer career. Stephenson played for the Swedish Allsvenska, was subsequently bought by AIK and then played for Aalesunds FK in Norwegian Tippeligean through 2010.
This past July, Stephenson went on loan to the San Jose Earthquakes and remained in California until the season’s end in November. According to Stephenson, “The loan spell went extremely well, as I helped them qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the franchise’s return in 2007.” Stephenson played 776 minutes for the Earthquakes in the midfield, scoring one goal and garnering one assist. After a mutual agreement to part ways with Aalesunds FK, Stephenson signed his three-year contract with the Earthquakes.
Stephenson follows his teammate Alex Blake ’03 to the MLS: Blake signed with the Colorado Rapids in 2003 and left behind an illustrious legacy as the College’s all-time leading scorer. Blake earned the NESCAC Player of the Year award in 2000 and 2001 and was named Div. III Player of the Year in 2001.
Compared to his soccer experience at the College, “the pace of the game [in the MLS] is so much faster,” Stephenson said. “You are playing against much better and more physical opposition.”
After playing five seasons in Sweden and Norway before returning to the MLS, Stephenson was quick to note some differences between the leagues. “The MLS is a full professional league, so you have that pro athlete status,” he said. “However, it is soccer in America.”
Stephenson is looking forward to the challenges to come in his professional soccer career. “My goal is to try and be one of the best players in the league,” he said. “It would be great to be leading the league in some of the statistical categories. Making the All-Star team and being on the Team of the Year would be great accomplishments as well,” he said.