How USMNT keeper Steffen won the No. 1 spot

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FOR AMERICAN SOCCER FANS, Oct. 10, 2017, still lives in infamy.

In front of roughly 1,500 spectators at a slapdash pitch in Trinidad, the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1986. The Americans had advanced from the group in three of the previous four World Cups and played in every tournament since 1990. Not qualifying was catastrophic.

Needing only a point against the world’s 99th-ranked team, Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. was undone by an abysmal Omar Gonzalez own goal and a 30-yard wonderstrike from Alvin Jones — both of which arced perilously out of goalkeeper Tim Howard’s grasp.

It was poetic, really. Howard’s 16-save knockout-round heroics against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup were a peak — a performance that martyred him in memedom saving the Titanic, Mufasa and Ned Stark from doom. After a decade-long stranglehold on his country’s starting spot, a 38-year-old Howard looked, at long last, human. It would be his final game for the USMNT. With Howard gone, it was the first time in decades there was no clear heir to the throne.

Brad Guzan had been Howard’s chief backup for years, but he’d fallen out of favor in England and was back in MLS. Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson had made only sparse international appearances. Ethan Horvath, then 22, had the pedigree; he’d been plucked out of the Colorado Rapids academy by then-Molde manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, now helming Manchester United.

But as it turns out, the tea leaves were steeped on 22-year-old Zack Steffen. In 2014, he’d left the University of Maryland after his sophomore season for Germany’s SC Freiburg, and he was in bloom with the Columbus Crew in 2017. He’d also been compared to Howard since he first tugged on a pair of gloves as a preteen.

Twelve days after the calamity in Trinidad, Steffen threw his hat into the ring.

IT WAS OCTOBER of 2017, the Columbus Crew’s regular-season finale against NYCFC and a game of vagaries for Steffen. Uncharacteristic missteps were belied by the incendiary; in the game’s dying embers, he committed a penalty by sideswiping Maxi Moralez, only to epically stymie the spot kick from former La Liga legend David Villa.

But in the 75th minute, Steffen unsheathed the world-class potential top European teams would soon covet: Villa, 7 yards out, volleyed a left-footed missile toward the upper 90. Steffen, somehow, was already at full stretch, thwarting the Spanish striker again with such ferocity that the ball nearly caromed out of bounds. Villa fell to his knees, palms cradling his face as his vacant eyes searched for an explanation.

Steffen emitted barely an ounce of panache, instantly setting up his defense for the ensuing corner. He’s been making those saves — the kind that subvert physics — since he was 14.

“You see him get to shots where, already, you’ve resigned yourself to thinking it’s in the net,” says Alan Mezger, Steffen’s youth coach at FC Delco. “It’s not that he’s done it, because he’s done it a hundred times before. It’s the fact that you’re no longer in awe.”

In the playoffs, against favored Atlanta United, Steffen made eight saves — including two penalties — in a shootout win, silencing a ravenous crowd of 67,211 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Heads in Europe turned.

“I [wasn’t] surprised,” says Inter Miami midfielder Wil Trapp, a USMNT captain and Steffen’s former Crew teammate. “It’s the most natural thing in the world, him between the pipes.”

Horvath also had a run of poor form as Steffen was thriving: Now with top Belgian side Club Brugge, Horvath lost his starting spot just before committing a ghastly error in an international friendly against Portugal. Ironically, in 2015, Molde didn’t release Horvath for the U-20 World Cup; it was Steffen, instead, who saved an 83rd-minute penalty kick against Colombia and sent the U.S. to the quarterfinals.

Luck was Zack’s again. In what Steffen described as a “lost year” for the USMNT in 2018 under an interim head coach, he made his debut, tallied seven saves against the soon-to-be World Cup champion France and was named U.S. Soccer’s 2018 Male Player of the Year. For club, the Crew turned down a midseason transfer offer from Championship side Bristol City and Steffen was named the 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

Eventually, the money — and the attention — grew too large to ignore. On Dec. 11, 2018, Manchester City doubled the record transfer fee for an American goalkeeper by spending $7.5 million to acquire Steffen, a mark previously set when Howard moved to Manchester United in 2003. Steffen is the second-most expensive American defensive transfer ever behind John Brooks, who moved from Hertha BSC to VfL Wolfsburg in 2017 for $18.7 million.

Nine days earlier, Steffen’s coach at Columbus, Gregg Berhalter, was named USMNT head coach. The stars had aligned.

Steffen was en route to becoming the next Tim Howard.

In his own way.

THERE’S A WEIGHT to Berhalter’s voice as he runs through the Rolodex of American goalkeepers — Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Howard. Steffen has played only 18 games for country, but he is encroaching on his predecessors’ territory: He’s top-seven all time in both wins (8) and shutouts (7). “Zack is up there,” Berhalter says. “There’s no limit to what he can accomplish.”

Howard thinks so too. “Those are big shoes to fill,” Howard says over the phone. “There’s pressure, a responsibility there. It’s one that Zack can certainly handle.”

Pressure wasn’t always kind to Steffen. While Howard was fending off Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, a 19-year-old Steffen was struggling in Germany with SC Freiburg. He’d gone abroad alone, couldn’t break through to the first team — although he managed three clean sheets in 14 reserve games — and was becoming unbearably homesick.

“It wasn’t what I was expecting,” Steffen says. “I didn’t feel settled, didn’t have much passion for soccer. I wanted my happiness back and to have my family be a part of that.”

Steffen’s mother, Stefanie, said their communication was ceaseless before Zack came home in 2016. It’s not a stretch to say Steffen mulled walking away.

“He was living with academy players four years younger, didn’t speak the language,” Stefanie says. “He finally said, ‘I can’t do it anymore,’ cut the strings, came back, started from square one and earned it.”

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Zack Steffen explains his long term future plan, with winning trophies at Man City a priority.

Did he ever. Steffen would head to Columbus. In 2017, regular season and postseason combined, he led MLS in minutes played (3,540) and saves (118), finishing top-four in clean sheets (11) and crosses claimed (35) while leading the league in crosses faced (646). He also led the league in penalty kick saves (4) in his first season as a full-time starter.

“That’s just what he does, you know?” Trapp says. “He’s unflappable.”

Then came the Manchester City move. On one hand, City, through sister club NYCFC, had long used MLS as a way to scout and evaluate young talent. They bought prized NYCFC winger Jack Harrison in early 2018, and Steffen’s MLS Goalkeeper of the Year-winning 2018 solidified his caliber. But City also had a world-class keeper in Ederson and an entrenched, though beleaguered, backup in former Barcelona backstop Claudio Bravo, now playing in La Liga.

So why sign Steffen?

“Man City pay top dollar for potential,” Howard says. “Zack has a natural athleticism and an elegance. He moves so freely in the penalty area. The way he carries himself: Every goalkeeper who dares to be great has to have that.”

Steffen was loaned to the Bundesliga’s Fortuna Dusseldorf two days after the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where he kept three clean sheets. At Dusseldorf, he picked No. 24 to honor, who else, Tim Howard, who wore 24 with Everton.

“[Howard] was massive for me,” Steffen told The Philadelphia Inquirer in December. “He’s the one that really showed me that I could [come] over to Europe and play.”

In his Bundesliga debut against Werder Bremen, Steffen earned man-of-the-match honors by making 10 saves — including stonewalling fellow American Josh Sargent. Though injuries shortened his season to 17 games, Steffen proved he had the mettle for top-flight competition.

Stefanie says she knows what made the difference: After being alone his first time abroad, one of his younger sisters Lexi lived with him in Dusseldorf. “Forever My Family” is both a tattoo — written in German to honor his mother’s ancestry — that adorns Steffen’s rib cage and a personal credo. After all, there were times when family was all Steffen had: single mom Stefanie and sisters Lexi and Katy. There were months the power bill went unpaid and they’d come home to perfect darkness.

Stefanie would soon meet her now-husband, Derek Steffen, and they would have two sons, Cole and Ben, together. Derek would adopt Zack, Lexi and Katy, all of whom would take his last name — but in the literal and figurative darkest of days, Stefanie’s message to her children was simple.

“I wanted them so badly to be good people, [to] have the courage and strength to be leaders,” she says.

Zack took that to heart.

STEFFEN SAYS HE didn’t experience police brutality or oppression firsthand growing up in the Philadelphia suburb of Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Though Zack’s biological father is Black, Stefanie is white and Derek is as well. Zack was raised in a middle-class environment that lacked diversity, Stefanie says, but she wasn’t immune. Racist taunts were slung at her for years because of her biracial children — a bell she left unrung during the 30-minute conversation with ESPN FC. Steffen didn’t find out about what Stefanie encountered until the mother of his Columbus host family recounted a story on Twitter this summer.

Regardless, Steffen witnessed hate. On the 24-hour news cycle, videos of people who looked just like him being senselessly killed played on a nightmarish loop. Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice in 2014; Freddie Gray in 2015 and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016; Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor earlier this year. By June 2, a week after George Floyd took his last labored breath on a Minneapolis curb, Steffen had long had enough.

Like so many his age, he took to the internet: “[What] does it mean when the very nation I protect the goal for won’t protect its citizens who look like me? … [If] I’m going to wear the U.S. flag, I need to know that it stands for something worth defending. I need to know that my country supports Black lives,” Steffen tweeted. It’s still his pinned tweet five months later.

More than 3,000 miles from home, Steffen heeded his mother’s advice: Lead. The USMNT’s official Twitter account used Steffen’s likeness to push its 2.1 million followers to register to vote; Steffen retweeted it, asserting that every vote indeed counts. He talked to ESPN FC’s Taylor Twellman about how he felt safer and less profiled around police in Germany. He told FC’s Alexis Nunes that teams kneeling in solidarity is nice, but actions are what effect change. He didn’t pull punches on Golic and Wingo when he said that President Donald Trump ignores the Black community.

Still, Steffen wanted to take more action, so he co-founded the VoyceNow Foundation, which partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America through the Minority Education Fund to provide disadvantaged classrooms hit hard by COVID-19 with laptops, Wi-Fi and scholarship funds for minority students. They also partnered with Columbus Speaks and raised $3,500 for Thrive to Five, a foundation that provides aid to low-income Columbus families with children.

“The world needs more of that, and if you can use a sport to do so?” Trapp says. “Credit [Steffen’s and Weston McKennie’s] bravery to step outside of being just a soccer player who keeps their mouth shut.”

USMNT teammate McKennie called Trump a racist in an interview with Sport Bild and coordinated the “Enough Is Enough” video that featured current and former USMNT stars, Steffen included. In October, McKennie decried, “I’m representing a country that possibly doesn’t even accept me. Just for the color of my skin. I’m not going to ‘shut up and dribble.'”

With pressure from its players, U.S. Soccer recently repealed its divisive national anthem policy, which required players to stand for the anthem, enacted in the wake of Megan Rapinoe kneeling to support Colin Kaepernick in 2016.

The young voices of what Howard calls “far and away the most talented USMNT squad” are continuing their activism loudly. On Thursday, with Steffen as captain, the starting XI joined arms ahead of their 0-0 draw with Wales. The back of their warm-ups featured pleas for social justice: “Black Lives Matter,” “Spread Love Not Hate,” “Unite in Truth.”

Steffen’s? “VoyceNow.”

“It’s not easy to be a Black athlete, to have that platform and use it for change,” Howard says. “I never felt torn over wearing the crest, but I certainly didn’t play in a climate like today. I commend Zack on speaking out.”

Berhalter recently told NBC Sports that this team is a “vehicle for change.” He says he’s proud that the young team is using its platform for positive messaging. “We all want to make a difference,” Berhalter says, “but it’s great to see the players actually doing things to help change.”

It starts with Steffen, the leader at the back.

IMPROBABLY, AS COVID-19 wreaked havoc over the summer, Steffen’s fortunes improved. Man City released Bravo and named Steffen the No. 2. On Sept. 24, in the English League Cup, he debuted against Bournemouth with a 2-1 victory.

Steffen didn’t tally a save, but he completed a mind-boggling 96% of his passes, including 10-for-11 on long balls. City boss Pep Guardiola, known for his proclivity to find elite distributing goalkeepers, was pleased, hailing Steffen’s calm.

Six days later, Steffen shut out Burnley too.

The USMNT won’t play a 2022 World Cup qualifier until June 2021, but with Christian Pulisic shining (when healthy) at Chelsea, McKennie already a fixture at Juventus, Tyler Adams winning Champions League games for RB Leipzig and boy genius Gio Reyna at Borussia Dortmund — not to mention Sergino Dest and Konrad de la Fuente at Barcelona and Bayern’s Chris Richards — the expectations are stratospheric.

“We’re a very young team,” Steffen says. “Talented but also inexperienced at the international level. We want to get games, [build] camaraderie. We’re close off the field, but we have to become close on the field.”

The USMNT guard, former and current, expects Steffen — not “the next Tim Howard” but Zack Steffen — to lead.

“The onus is on Zack to wear that No. 1 shirt for the next decade,” Howard says. “This team has every right and all of the potential to be the best USMNT in history. Zack? He’s the crown jewel.”

Steffen, for his part, takes in the game’s peaks and valleys. He’s still behind Ederson. There’s still competition for the starting USMNT job and a plethora of peaks to summit. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar would be a start.

“I’m happy to be here,” Steffen says. “I’m trying to keep my eyes and ears open, take it all in, learn from the best. I’m just trying to be here as long as I can.”

He just might get his wish.