When Zack Steffen left Germany in 2016, he was desperate. He wasn't just desperate for playing time, but also for happiness, and his jump from the University of Maryland to German club Freiburg as a teenager had led him down a path that had him eager to return to the United States in search of a fresh start.
Three years later, Steffen's career reset has exceeded all possible expectations. He signed with the Columbus Crew hoping to become a starter, and as he heads towards the end of a breakout 2018, Steffen has not only become a star for the Crew, he has also become the U.S. national team's first-choice goalkeeper.
Steffen can also add MLS Goalkeeper of the Year to that outstanding period after being named as the league's top netminder on Tuesday.
"It means everything," Steffen told Goal about the award. "Just to have that respect and the admiration from the guys in the league and the coaches in the league is amazing. It shows that hard work pays off. It’s an amazing accolade to receive."
The award is the culmination of a resurgence after a rough beginning to his professional career. A standout youth national team goalkeeper long considered a future star, Steffen left college and signed in Germany hoping to find success, but instead he found loneliness and a lack of playing time. It took him two years to realize he needed a change.
"There wasn’t one singular moment. I would just say it all built up," Steffen said of his decision to leave Freiburg. "Just not having family over there, I was at a young time in my life, a weird time in my life, being 19, leaving college early, not really knowing who I was. Now I’m really keen on having a support system experience in my career along with me, and I didn’t have that over there at all. It just didn’t feel right and it wasn’t what I wanted. Fortunately enough I came back and the rest is history."
Steffen didn't need very long to become the Crew's starting goalkeeper, taking over the job in 2017. By the end of that season, he was pulling off penalty kick heroics to beat Atlanta United and help the Crew make a surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals. He went into 2018 with momentum, and that has led to him taking over as the starting USMNT goalkeeper while also continuing to star for the Crew, playing well enough to earn MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors.
"I would say it’s exceeded my expectations," Steffen said. "I came back focusing on trying to find happiness again. Trying to see my family and be with my family, and enjoy having them around for my soccer here. Obviously I was focusing on trying to get better, and trying to get onto the team, in the starting XI. I didn’t expect for me to progress this fast."
Players often downplay the importance of individual honors, but Steffen understands the significance of being recognized on Tuesday. Steffen is the second-youngest goalkeeper to ever win the award, falling a year short of 2001 winner Tim Howard, who was 22 when he won the honor. It was Howard who Steffen looked up to as he was growing up and growing into being a goalkeeper.
"Tim was definitely number one, he was definitely my idol when I was growing up," Steffen said. "There were others like (Iker) Casillas and (Edwin) Van Der Sar and Oliver Kahn, but Tim was at the top of the list."
Another past winner of the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award is Pat Onstad. A two-time recipient of the prize during his MLS-Cup winning years with the Houston Dynamo, Onstad is now Steffen's goalkeeper coach with the Crew, and has played a big part in helping Steffen's development.
"Pat’s been amazing," Steffen said. "Ever since I got him back, he’s been supportive. Obviously on the field he’s a great goalkeeper coach. He has so much experience and he was a great goalkeeper. I’ve learned so much by just talking to him."
Steffen's development in goal has been on full display in the current MLS playoffs. He shook off an early mistake to make a pair of penalty saves in a shootout win against D.C. United, then he made a handful of top-notch plays, including a last-second diving save to help the Crew take control of their series against the New York Red Bulls.
It is those kind of heroics that have Steffen once again on the radar of European teams, and it could be what leads to him making a move back to Europe this winter. Steffen readily admits that he's interested in a return to Europe. His tough experience in Germany hasn't soured him on the prospect of going back across the pond. He believes he's more ready now than he was three years ago, and watching him play makes it easy to believe him.
"I’ve matured so much in these past three years ever since I left Germany," Steffen told Goal. "To have these experiences with my family on the side of the field here in Columbus and all over where they’ve traveled in cities in this league. That drives me for the next challenge. I want to be pushed. I know that if I go over there it’ll be different than in Germany."