American soccer fans have been waiting anxiously for a new generation of goalkeepers to emerge as legitimate heirs to the throne long held by Tim Howard, and shared at times with Brad Guzan. As recently as two years ago, Zack Steffen's name was making the rounds as a prospect with the potential to be special enough to challenge for the throne. Now, as the starting goalkeeper for the Columbus Crew, Steffen is slowly beginning to re-enter that conversation.
A former All-American goalkeeper at Maryland, and one of the stars of the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team's run to the quarterfinals in 2015, Steffen had all the qualities to make scouts drool. He had the size, the cat-like reflexes, the aggressiveness. When he left college early to sign with German club Freiburg, the hope was that European soccer's talent factory would forge him into a challenger for a national team role sooner than later.
It didn't quite work out that way.
A year and a half spent in Germany with Freiburg proved to be a trying time. Steffen went to Germany as a teenager and found the isolation difficult. He didn't move overseas with a parent or relative, or move to a country where he spoke the language. He dove in to European soccer and, in time, felt like he would be better off coming back home.
"It was just tough not having a support system over there," Steffen told Goal. "You're in your own little world over there."
"It was a pretty decent level," Steffen said of Freiburg's reserve team, which he played regularly with in the German fourth division. "We'd play teams that were like the first teams of their cities, while most of us were 19, 20 and 21. It was a different experience."
It was an experience that left Steffen wanting more, and also yearning for a return to the United States. His decision to leave Germany might have seemed like a sign of weakness to some, but the Columbus Crew knew full well what sort of prospect he was, and Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter — a veteran of the German leagues as a player — fully understood the demands Steffen faced.
"Every player's situation is different. Just because one guy makes it or doesn't make it that doesn't mean he can't be a good, solid pro," Berhalter told Goal. "I've spent enough time in Germany to know it's not the easiest place in the world to live. The conditions can be difficult. If he didn't feel his pathway was in Germany I commend him for changing it and altering it and looking for a place where he was going to get more playing time."
Steffen signed with the Crew in the summer of 2016 and spent the second half of that year on loan with the USL's Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Between his time with Freiburg, and his time in Pittsburgh, Steffen fell off the radar as a future national team prospect. Jurgen Klinsmann called him in for a national team camp in 2016, but even that didn't seem to re-ignite the hype train to the levels it reached in the summer of 2015, when he starred at the Under-20 World Cup.
"People had a lot of confidence in what they thought he could be and maybe because he didn't stay in Germany that hurt their opinion (of) him," Berhalter said. "Maybe he has to build that back up."
Steffen has spent the 2017 MLS season doing just that, winning the starting goalkeeper job with the Crew this spring after a good training camp battle with Brad Stuver. The 22-year-old has settled into the Crew's possession-based system and delivered the type of jaw-dropping saves and uncanny athleticism that has made him a top prospect since his days in the U.S. youth system. Though he is the second-youngest starting goalkeeper in the league at 22 — only FC Dallas' Jesse Gonzalez is younger, by a month — Steffen has been a quick study in the Crew's set-up, and has established himself as one of the league's most consistent goalkeepers.
"For such a young goalkeeper he plays like he's more experienced," Berhalter said. "He stays calm. He's not flustered by big moments or big crowds and I think that's important. Goalkeeper is a difficult position, especially in our system. We ask them to do a lot with their feet and we need them to be calm, and he's done a great job of that."
While Steffen's season has been mostly smooth sailing, he has also had the ups and downs you would expect from a young goalkeeper. The most memorable of the low points came in just his second start for the Crew, when he turned the ball over in his own penalty area just 62 seconds into a road game against the Houston Dynamo. The Dynamo capitalized, scoring an early goal that fueled a 3-1 victory.
Steffen didn't swell on the blunder too much and stepped his game up immediately, posting a shutout in the Crew's next match to help spark a three-game winning streak.
"That's the thing about being a goalkeeper, you make one mistake and you can be punished," Steffen said of that early-season incident. "You can't dwell on something like that."
"We're going to have couple of those a year. It's going to happen," Berhalter said of Steffen's mistake. "We don't want it to happen in the first minute of an away game to give the team momentum, but it's going to happen and I think him realizing that and sticking to the game plan is important. We want to give him the confidence that when he makes mistakes like that, he can rebound."
Steffen rebounded very well and has been a steady presence for the Crew all season, no easy task considering the fact the Crew went into the year with several new faces along the back line. He currently ranks among the league's top five goalkeepers in saves, shutouts, passes completed and duels won, and his quickness and aggressiveness has helped him post a whopping 276 recoveries, more than any player in MLS.
Steffen's play has helped push his name back into the conversation of U.S. national team prospects — along with the likes of Gonzalez, Ethan Horvath and Alex Bono — and his experience training with the national team in May of 2016 has only served to motivate him to play his way into another call-up.
"It's in the back of my head, but I'm focused on the Crew and developing my game," Steffen said. "I think about (the national team) very often. I definitely have all that in the back of my mind and the goal is to be back with the national team one day."
It might sound far-fetched to think a goalkeeper who was playing in the USL just a year ago, and in the German fourth division two years ago, is a serious national team prospect, but the reality is he never stopped being the player who generated so much buzz as a blue-chip talent three years ago. He simply fell off the radar and went through experiences that have only served to help him mature faster than most 22-year-old goalkeepers would. Now that he's back on the radar, and playing like the player so many thought he could be when he was an impressive teenager, it won't be long before the Zack Steffen hype train is fully loaded and rolling along at full speed.
"As he continues to play people will realize how good of a goalkeeper he is," Berhalter told Goal. "I think he certainly has that potential. As we do well as a team it will give him more exposure. He's a good goalie and as he gets older he's going to keep showing that."