Steffen eyes USMNT number one spot after breakout season
January 24, 2018
Steffen, 22, completed his first season with Columbus Crew SC in 2017 and after a rough stretch early in the season, he emerged as one of the top goalkeepers in the league. He was a key player for Columbus down the stretch to earn a playoff spot.
Then in the first round of the playoffs, Steffen helped Columbus defeat a favored Atlanta United team in a shootout after an entertaining 120-minute scoreless draw. Then against Toronto in the conference final, he was again in top form despite Columbus losing 1-0 over two legs.
“Last year was a turning point for me in my career,” Steffen told ASN from the USMNT camp. “It gave me a lot of confidence to be able to step out on the field and tell myself I could be here and play with these guys. A lot of that goes back to my coaching staff in Columbus. They pushed me day in and day out - along with the players in front of me each day. They expected my best and that's all I wanted to give them. It helped me grow and in the hard times it helped give me the confidence to move forward.”
By the end of the season, it was clear that Steffen was emerging as a strong contender to be the next top goalkeeper for the U.S. national team. Since 1990, only Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, and Tim Howard have been first choice goalkeepers (with the exception of Brad Guzan when Tim Howard took a year off). But for the past six years, Howard, Guzan, and Rimando have occupied the top three spots.
It is a position that has historically been the strongest for the national team and now it is a position likely to see massive overhaul. And January camp could see Steffen make his first steps towards becoming the next number one.
“That's the ultimate goal, to be on the field and representing this country,” Steffen said. “I am going into training to work hard, gain some more experience, and learn from the coaches, staff, and players around me. The goal is to play and be the number one.”
But Steffen’s rise is not surprising to many who know him well. After a very strong season at the University of Maryland, Steffen was one of the best goalkeepers at the 2015 U-20 World Cup where in the quarterfinals he kept the U.S. team alive against Serbia for 120 minutes of scoreless soccer while also making several saves in the shootout. Eventually, Serbia would prevail and go on to win the tournament.
“I've known Zack for a very long time since our days on youth national teams,” said Toronto FC midfielder Marky Delgado who was also a teammate with Steffen on the 2015 U-20 World Cup team. “He's a great player and had an incredible season. He really showed it this year.”
Before Steffen arrived in camp he also spoke with his Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter, who as a player was a key part of the U.S. team’s backline at the 2002 World Cup. Steffen said Berhalter was encouraging.
“Overall, his play has been very consistent,” Berhalter said. “He’s very calm, very poised and has made very few big mistakes. And then he makes the big saves.”
Steffen’s breakout season came on the heels of an awkward move to Europe. Following the 2015 U-20 World Cup, Steffen signed with Freiburg in Germany where he played for the club’s youth teams. Throughout the year he was open about how it was a difficult period in his life moving abroad and that he was not adjusting well off the field.
The return to Columbus, however, gave him the confidence to establish himself as a professional while still being close with his family. Despite that, he did admit that he would like to return abroad in the future.
“Being happy off the field and having my friends and family come out to games,” Steffen said. “I think my family missed two games the entire year. That was awesome to share that with them and be part of their support system. I am a big family person. To have them around and help me through the tough times was key. But in a few years, I would like to go back to Europe.”
For now, however, he is focused on the United States national team ahead of its friendly on Saturday against Bosnia and Herzegovina (9:30 pm EST, FS1). Obviously, it is a transitional time for the team with no permanent coach, no technical director, an outgoing federation president, and no meaningful games on the horizon.
Even with the team in an unstable situation, Steffen insists that the mood among the players is positive and everyone is proud and hungry to help the team make a statement and build up their respective résumés for future call-ups.
“It's been a cool experience so far to be up with the rest of the group and to be here is obviously an honor and a privilege,” Steffen said. “I've been getting back into the rhythm and have fun. [Dave Sarachan] is a great guy and a good coach. He's been pushing us in training. This was my first time meeting him and it's been cool to see what he's about compared to other coaches in my past. I am enjoying it.”