When Zack Steffen finished his first January camp with the U.S. national team a year ago, he did so ready to attack a list of goals he set for himself.
Twelve months later, Steffen finds himself reflecting on what can be best described as a dream year, and a dream run he does not want to end.
Consider the list of accomplishments he finished with in 2018: regular starter for the USMNT, MLS All-Star, MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and a spot within the Best XI, U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year, and the subject of a $10 million transfer to Premier League champions Manchester City.
It is the kind of year that forces a laugh out of Steffen when he stops to think about it, the kind of year that makes you want to have another one just like it.
"You obviously set goals for yourself and want to achieve them, but obviously I couldn't have known any of this was coming,” Steffen told Goal in an exclusive interview.
“That's what hard work and dedication to your craft can lead to. When you work hard anything can happen, and I'm just trying to go into 2019 starting where I left off in 2018."
Steffen’s good fortune did not end with the aforementioned list, as he now finds himself reunited with new USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and his own long-time coach with the Columbus Crew.
There will be no tough transition adapting to a new coach, and no having to build a relationship from scratch. Instead, Steffen is working with a coach, and in a system, he knows very well.
Most of Steffen’s team-mates are not as lucky, but what the 23-year-old goalkeeper has seen so far in the current camp is a group that is adapting well to Berhalter’s demanding possession-based system.
“There's a lot of smart players in the national team, but it's still taking in new information and information that's different from what the guys have been seeing for the past couple of years,” Steffen said.
“I think Gregg and the coaching stuff have done a really good job of expressing what they want and how they want to play, and the guys here have adapted and trusted the coaching staff and have really bought into it, and that's exactly what we need.
“We need people believing we can play this way, and that's how we'll be successful.”
Steffen’s trust in Berhalter was only strengthened in 2018, a year that looked like it might see him leave in the summer when Championship side Bristol City made a bid.
Berhalter and the Crew determined the offer was not good enough, and even though he was open to the idea of making a move at that time, Steffen accepted the decision - something that proved to be wise down the line.
“It was definitely a tough time when Bristol came in,” Steffen said. “It was really hard to figure out if it was the right situation or not.
"I think that after the whole Bristol thing came along a month and a half later the Manchester City rumors started coming and I heard they were interested.”
The transfer to Manchester City, which set a new record for largest fee ever paid for an American goalkeeper, came as a surprise to many outside the United States, but it made sense considering Steffen’s rapid improvement and his attributes, a combination of elite athleticism and passing quality that could help him thrive at the Etihad Stadium.
“They're one of the best teams in the world, especially with their style of play,” Steffen said. “Gregg's style of play is very similar to City's style of play, so that kind of helped me focus a little bit more with my feet.”
Steffen will stay with the Crew for the first half of the MLS season before heading to Manchester this summer. Playing time will not be easy to come by, given the presence of Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson, but Steffen isn’t content with time on the sidelines.
“Our job is to compete, and we want to play as many games as possible,” Steffen said. “I'll go over there and learn from everybody over there and try to get on the field as much as I can.”
Steffen will head to England three years after he cut short his first foray in Europe - a failed stint at German club Freiburg that ended in part because of lack of playing time, but also because Steffen never settled comfortably in Germany and away from home.
Now, three years older and wiser, Steffen believes he is mentally ready to face the challenges that await at Man City.
“I went to Germany taking a chance on seeing what Europe was like, and taking on that new challenge,” Steffen said. “Obviously it wasn't for me at the time, but I always had that goal to come back to the U.S. and work hard and hopefully go back to Europe. I'm happy that it’s come about.”’
With his club future set, Steffen heads into the new year focused on strengthening his position with the national team.
He emerged as the first-choice option under caretaker coach Dave Sarachan in 2018, and he is the odds-on favorite to stay in that position, even though there will be stiff competition.
He figures to have the inside track given Berhalter is in charge, but Steffen is not taking anything for granted, and he is heading into 2019 determined to maintain the lofty level he set last year.
“I’m not going to come here and be complacent and take things for granted. I know I have a lot of work to do, and there’s plenty of competition, but that’s a good thing. It’s only going to motivate me to build on last year and keep improving.”