There must have been moments, in his long sojourn on the bench (81 of the previous 990 minutes), when Michael Stephens felt those stirrings - just cut inside, and the moment's yours; just slow a bit, and you'll see it. Always, the horizon stood off a bit, yet always there he was, striving.
In the meantime, there were the Fire, fighting Seattle to a draw in a whole lotta o'nothing at Toyota Park. Chicago claimed superiority in possession between weakened squads, awaiting a difference-maker.
Saturday, Stephens walked into a moribund midseason match in the 83rd minute. He wasn't flexing for the papparazzi, he was fixing his shinpads. The goal was to hang onto a point against a serious MLS Cup contender; his role was more preventative than expansive. His hometown team, the Fire, had staggered into the match on the bottom of the league table, a table the visitors nearly topped. Mikey checked in unassumingly, fingering those shinpads into place.
Less than 10 minutes later, Stephens had his reward, skidding a lovely pass through that Jason Johnson would turn onto his right foot and into the game-winning goal in stoppage time. The 1-0 win was the first-ever for the Fire against Seattle, who entered the match atop the Western Conference.
Once afield, Stephens was everywhere important. Seattle surged forward through right back Tyrone Mears, and the Fire were there; Patrick Doody's defensive work was always just enough, especially with the likes of Matt Polster cleaning up. Centerbacks Eric Gehrig and Adaílton tidied up whatever messes came along easily, leaving Shipp (and later Stephens) to scheme upon a nearly unblemished palette - no chances offered, now how do you proceed?
Shipp produced something, chance after chance but all for not, but the Fire's shape kept the short-handed Sounders at bay. Seattle's surprising inability to string together multiple passes certainly raised the Men in Red's morale on the evening, and likely contributed to the Fire snatching a game-winning goal in the dying minutes.
In the 91st minute, the visitors had a free kick following a Matt Polster foul, a free kick which was squibbed to Harry Shipp, the aformentioned chance-creator, who slid it forward to fellow Chicagoan Stephens. 'Mikey' did something few Fire would do, two minutes into stoppage time, just into the game: He waited. He slowed.
Cutting against the flow of weird-green defenders moving towards goal, Stephens waited another tick and then spun the ball forward to Jason Johnson. JJ turned the ball onto his favored left foot and stroked a game-winning goal into the side-netting: 1-0, Fire, for the first time, forever.
Chicago (5-9-3) plays the Columbus Crew Wednesday night at Toyota Park. Despite the win, they remain rooted to the bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference standings. #HauptmanOut proceedings will continue apace.