Zack Steffen Hoping to Lock Down Big Role in Germany
July 16, 2015
YES, THE MICHAEL BRADLEYS and Clint Dempseys and Jozy Altidores are returning to North America after stints in Europe, but it’s not all one-way traffic. Christian Pulisic, Rubio Rubin, Emerson Hyndman, and Mukwelle Akale are just some of the high-profile U.S. youth national team players in Europe at the moment.
And don’t forget about Zack Steffen, who emerged as one of the best—if not the very best—goalkeepers at the U-20 World Cup last month in New Zealand.
Steffen, 20, joined 2.Bundesliga squad SC Freiburg in December after two years at the University of Maryland. Following the U-20 World Cup, he returned home to his native Downingtown, Pa., where he only had about 11 days off. His parents threw him a party and he enjoyed catching up with friends before heading back to Germany to try to lock up the starting goalkeeper spot on Freiburg’s second team.
Looking back at the U-20 World Cup, Steffen believes his performance on that stage only confirmed what he already knew.
“The experience was awesome,” Steffen told American Soccer Now from Germany. “I thought pretty much all the guys had a really good tournament.
“I knew I could play like that and I knew that was my game all along. I was happy I was able to show my game to everybody who was watching.”
Both in World Cup qualifying in Jamaica and later at the World Cup in New Zealand, Steffen’s numbers were very impressive. In qualifying, Steffen’s penalty save against El Salvador in a decisive game prevented a likely extra-time scenario and clinched a spot in New Zealand.
In New Zealand he played even better, making multiple key saves—including another penalty against Colombia in the round of 16. In the quarterfinal match against Serbia Steffen made another series of remarkable saves including several in the shootout.
Following that wrenching loss, Steffen was hailed for his efforts and credited with giving his team every opportunity to win against a Serbian team that would later win the U-20 World Cup.
“It stings that Serbia was the one that won it when we were so close to advancing to the semifinals,” Steffen said. “They’re a good team and we are happy with the way we played. The goal was to get to the final and bring the trophy home but only one team can do that.
“Obviously I am excited to be back here in Germany. It was nice to be home but it’s nice to get back in training and hopefully start the season off right.”
Steffen is one of a core group of players that has played together over an extended period of time. Others include Russell Canouse, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Jordan Allen, and Steffen believes that the strong bond they share has paid dividends on the field.
“I think that’s what helped us go that much farther in the tournament,” he said. “There are a handful of us that have been in the cycle since we were 14. We’re very close and I think our success came from that—which is nice and that makes it fun when you’re hanging out in a hotel for 35 days.”
Steffen and others on the U-20 team are now eyeing the 2016 Olympics—which is basically a U-23 tournament—with qualifying beginning in October. Steffen insists that he is simply focused on Freiburg at the moment but that will likely change in the months ahead as qualifying approaches.
Right now the top U.S. U-23 goalkeeper is Cody Cropper, currently with MK Dons of the English Championship. Cropper was the starting goalkeeper on the U.S. U-20 team in 2013 and Steffen was a backup. The two are close friends and Cropper hopes that Steffen will join him again on the U-23 team.
“I think there will be a handful of players that can come in and definitely make an impact on the U-23s from both the U-20s and the full men's team—younger players like Zack Steffen,” Cropper said. “I have that relationship with Zack. We work very well together.
“We spent a lot of time together through the  U-20 cycle. We were roommates and we were friends. I think Zack is an amazing goalkeeper. I have the utmost respect for Zack as a player and a person.”
Over the past few months Steffen developed a solid understanding with his two starting central defenders, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga. In fact, the trio conceded just three goals in 840 minutes during qualification and the World Cup—a staggering ratio of one goal allowed every 280 minutes.
“It was nice to have them in front of me,” Steffen said. “They would die for each other and the team. The communication we had in this World Cup was even better than it was in qualifying. I think we’re very detailed and connected and that helped. They both had an outstanding World Cup, which helped me.
“It was nice to have them in front of me.”
Steffen is reluctant to talk about himself and is more inclined to talk about the U-20s as a group. He thinks there is plenty of potential within the squad.
“You just have to work hard every day to improve because obviously we’re not there yet. We’re not at the top. But it is nice to be recognized a little bit and to show our fans what we can do—what we can do in the future for U.S. Soccer.”
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.