Editorial (March 23, 2018) — What was once a position of strength for the USMNT is now fraught with uncertainty.
Over the course of the team’s run of seven straight World Cups, the solidity of the goalkeeping situation was a constant. The notable names are seemingly unending. Players like Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, Tim Howard and Brad Guzan all proved their quality between the posts.
But last year’s inability to qualify for the 2018 World Cup left the position in flux. Howard, whose heroics in Brazil helped precipitate a near upset of Belgium in the round of 16, clearly showed his age during the most recent qualifying cycle. He obviously wasn’t the only one. It’s why interim coach Dave Sarachan has called up so many newer and younger faces for recent friendlies.
Zack Steffen With a Huge Opportunity to Become Goalkeeper of the Future for USMNT
One of those players is Zack Steffen. The 22-year-old made his senior national team debut when he came on in the second half of the Stars and Stripes’ 0-0 draw with Bosnia and Herzegovina in January. He’s part of the current camp alongside Columbus Crew SC teammate Wil Trapp in preparation for next Tuesday’s friendly against Paraguay.
Steffen is coming off a breakout campaign for Columbus in 2017. He started every single game across all competitions with his 3,540 minutes played during the regular season and playoffs leading all MLS goalkeepers. Among his exploits was outdueling Guzan, a player with extensive English Premier League experience, during Crew SC’s penalty shootout upset over Atlanta United in the knockout round of last year’s playoffs.
All of it led to him earning well-deserved call-ups to the last two USMNT camps. He joins Toronto FC‘s Alex Bono and former D.C. United backstop Bill Hamid who have also been called up by Sarachan both times. Bono is coming off an MLS Cup title while Hamid is the most experienced of the bunch when it comes to the national team. But Steffen may have the most upside moving forward. Here are two important reasons why.
Steffen Is the Most Experienced at International Level When It Matters
Perhaps indirectly (or maybe not so much), Steffen has been getting groomed to be the natural successor to Howard in net for the Yanks. The biggest example was nearly three years ago when he featured for the U-20s during the World Cup at that level.
Steffen played all 480 minutes for the U.S. in the tournament and pitched three shutouts. It included 210 minutes of scoreless soccer in the knockout round against Colombia and Serbia. The latter dispatched the U.S. in a penalty shootout en route to winning the entire tournament.
That experience put Steffen up against top players from around the world who are of similar age to him. It’s as big a stage as there is at youth international level and Steffen stepped up, especially down the stretch. If not for the unforgiving crapshoot that is spot kicks, who knows how far the U.S. would’ve advanced.
Steffen Continues to Impress for His Club in 2018
Steffen’s call-up means that when Columbus faces D.C. on Saturday, it will end a streak of 3,900 consecutive minutes played including regular season, playoffs and U.S. Open Cup for Steffen. That’s a far cry from where he was just a few years ago in terms of his club career. Unable to break into the first team at SC Freiburg in the Bundesliga, Steffen could only find time with the reserves.
But Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter believed in him enough to sign him during the summer of 2016. During his tenure in that capacity, the 44-year-old has proven his eye for game-changing talent time and time again. That Steffen locked down the starting goalkeeper role for the club the way he did is one of many examples. It’s an investment that’s reaped dividends and provided both the club and Steffen with a win-win situation.
Three games into the 2018 MLS regular season and nothing’s changed in that regard. Steffen continues to make the case that he’s the best young goalkeeper not just in the league, but in the USMNT player pool. Only him, Andre Blake and Sean Johnson have two shutouts up to this point in the season. Those three also figure prominently in the following graphic. It ranks MLS goalies by percentage of minutes played without conceding a goal this year.
— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) March 11, 2018
Why Steffen Needs to Be the Man Going Forward
Johnson, not part of the current camp, is certainly making a case for continued USMNT consideration over the next few years. He’s part of a New York City FC team who’s currently out of the gate the fastest with respect to the Supporters’ Shield standings. He boasts similar numbers to Steffen in the above chart and has an 88.9 percent save percentage through three games compared to Steffen’s 80 percent.
But the opportunity to grab the starter role for the US by the horns is there for Steffen much more than it is for Johnson. The emphasis is clearly on getting younger players into the program and providing them with senior level experience ahead of the next qualifying cycle. Though Johnson isn’t ancient by any means at 28, he’s way above the average age of the 22 players called up this time around (23 years, 84 days).
Hamid made the move abroad in the off-season, signing with Midtjylland in the Danish top flight. But he has yet to make an appearance in the starting XI. Bono is obviously coming off a major trophy but things have started off a bit shaky in 2018, at least in MLS play. All signs point to Steffen having the best case when it comes to full-time starter minutes at international level for the foreseeable future.
Missing the World Cup means that the U.S is relegated to rather meaningless fixtures for the remainder of 2018. But that doesn’t mean they can’t begin preparing for the future. Giving Steffen a look with an eye towards establishing some semblance of stability to the USMNT goalkeeper situation, when taking into account his overall body of work, has all the makings of a slam dunk at this point.
Photo credit: John A. Babiak