Herriman • The last time Real Salt Lake midfielder Sunday “Sunny” Stephen recorded something on the stat sheet, it was an assist to Damir Kreilach against Minnesota United on Sept. 15.
But stat-stuffing isn’t Stephen’s job. Most of what he does on the field won’t end up in the box score after a game. Like running down attackers and giving them a stiff body check so he can take control of the ball. Or tracking a long pass and reading what offensive player it’s meant for so he can intercept it.
At various times this season, Stephen has proven to be one of the unsung heroes RSL plays on a regular basis, just hidden in plain sight.
“Keeping the balance of the team, not exposing nothing — that’s all I think is the area that I think I could help the team gain more strength,” Stephen said recently.
The subtleties in Sunny’s game do have a tremendous impact on RSL’s success. In the 22 games he has played, RSL has averaged 1.77 goals per game, and allowed 1.32. But when he hasn’t seen the field, the team has scored 1.45 per game and allowed 2.36.
Stephen’s impact is even more glaring when he starts. In those 15 games, RSL has averaged 1.87 goals per game and allowed just 1.33.
Stephen’s impact is most felt on the defensive side of the ball. Head coach Mike Petke calls it his “defensive bite.” The soft-spoken 30-year-old from Nigeria brings out a different side to him when he’s between the lines.
“He’s got that chip on his shoulder,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “Sunny’s one of the nicest guys you’ll meet. But on the field, he’s not. That’s what you need.”
In the 22 games Stephen has played this season, RSL is 11-6-5. The team is 3-6-2 when he sits.
Several of Stephen’s teammates feel his impact while he’s on the field. Forward Corey Baird said Sunny helps bring defensive stability to the team.
“Off the ball, he’s everywhere,” Baird said. “He’s everywhere making tackles. He’s huge for us in that regard.”
Stephen’s defensive ability helps get RSL into offensive transition and make life easier for the forwards on the field, Sebastian Saucedo said.
“He works so hard defensively that he’s able to attack and give us those passes,” Saucedo said. “[When] he recovers the ball in the back line, he’s able to find key passes going forward. … For us forwards, it’s easier like that than us having to come back and get the ball. He makes it a lot easier.”
Part of what makes Stephen so effective on the field is his soccer IQ. Saucedo and Baird both spoke to the anticipation he has when making reads and knowing which of his teammates to pass to and when.
“He knows what he’s going to do before he gets the ball,” Saucedo said.
Stephen said that although as a competitor he wants to start every game, it does not matter to him whether or starts or comes off the bench. He just wants to do whatever it takes to get a win.
“To me, whenever I lose is like a shame,” Sunny said.
Stephen received a yellow card in RSL’s 4-1 loss to the Portland Timbers on Oct. 6. The infraction left him suspended for Thursday’s 4-1 win over New England due to card accumulation.
But Sunny will be back in the lineup Sunday against the Timbers for RSL’s final game of the season. Having his low-profile, high-reward game could be something that puts RSL over the top.
“He’s just a great player,” Beckerman said. “Just getting him on the field makes us a better team.”
REAL SALT LAKE AT PORTLAND TIMBERS
At Providence Park, Portland, Ore.
Kickoff » Sunday, 3 p.m. MDT
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 14-12-7, Portland 14-9-19
Last meeting » Portland 4, RSL 1 (Oct. 6 at Ro Tinto Stadium)
About Portland » Keeper Jeff Attinella will be available to play. He missed the last game against RSL due to a dislocated shoulder. His official status is questionable. … Defender Alvas Powell is questionable to play due to a head injury. … Diego Valeri leads the team with 10 goals and 11 assists. … Have not lost in four of its previous home games (three wins, one draw). … Clinch playoff berth with a win.
About RSL » After missing five starters in the win over New England, the team will get back Albert Rusnák, Joao Plata, Jefferson Savarino, Kyle Beckerman and Sunday “Sunny” Stephen. … Head coach Mike Petke said after the New England win that he already has a good idea about who will start against Portland. … If RSL wins, they will clinch a playoff berth in the Western Conference. … Damir Kreilach leads the team in goals with 12.