Stephenson proves capable player in RSL's diamond

USA TODAY Sports

Khari Stephenson has taken some criticism in his first three matches at Real Salt Lake, and at times, it's difficult to reason out why that is the case.

Some of the claims levied at the former San Jose Earthquakes player focus on his speed — he's no speed demon — or his energy — again, he's not a Will Johnson-style player — or even his positioning, which I think might be rather contrary to reality.

As I so often force us, let's jump into a quick statistical approach to Stephenson, such that we might hope to gain a greater understanding of what he does as a player.

In his 210 minutes of play, Khari Stephenson has won the ball in the middle third more regularly than any other player; his 13 times put him at Beckerman's level of winning the ball approximately every 16 minutes. This, of course, does not a good player make, but it shines some light on the sort of player he is.

Further, let's look at his tackling stats, as they're quite good for a Real Salt Lake player in these first three matches: Stephenson has made a successful tackle every 26 minutes — he's currently eight for eight. Only Sebastian Velasquez has made more, and he's at nine for 11 with more minutes player. Obviously enough, tackling stats are a two-way street: They can point to an aptitude (clearly the 100-percent tackling rate indicates Stephenson isn't a bad tackler, at least), but excessive tackling can also point to a misunderstanding of the requisite positioning to approach the opposition.

In Stephenson's case, I lean toward the former, though it might stand to reason that he has indeed only played a handful of matches with Real Salt Lake and could be learning the system.

It's easy to point at Stephenson and call to attention his lack of evident fire in his play when he's replaced quite capably by a player like Ned Grabavoy at the half. In some sense, this comparison is never likely to lend well to Stephenson: Grabavoy has been at Real Salt Lake for years now and has an intimate understanding of the system. Stephenson, on the other hand, is relying on more learn-as-you-go techniques, some of which will work well, others of which may not.

Stephenson 84.00%
Beckerman 83.18%
Velasquez 82.78%
Gil 78.91%

As a final note, let's look at his passing. In the early days of the season, Stephenson has a passing rate of 84 percent, which is somewhat remarkable for these first few matches. Of the players with more than a handful of minutes, he's below only Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe in that regard — and right at the level of Grabavoy and Kyle Beckerman.

Again, passing rates are hardly everything. They tend to skew toward safer passers of the ball but will never benefit a player in the attacking midfield spot in the same way it would an outside-of-the-diamond player. It also doesn't speak to passing difficulty or efficiency.

He's certainly no perfect player, Stephenson, but he has proven himself a reliable option in the outside of the diamond. Criticisms levied at him are, I think, wide of the mark — and I think the statistics are on his side.

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