The Philly kid is trusting the process. It isn’t easy at times. But Zack Steffen said he’s convinced that what he’s going through now on the bench at Manchester City is helping him become the goalkeeper he wants to be.
It could be one of the most iron-clad, ubiquitous cliches in sports: Play well for your club, and you’ll be considered for your country. Steffen and U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter are committed to testing that truism. At 25, Steffen has emerged as the USA’s clear No. 1 and the heir to an uninterrupted 30-year lineage of accomplished American goalies. The difference is that he doesn’t start for his club and, barring injury to Ederson, Steffen may play only about half a dozen times for Man City this season.
Goalies need games. It’s a position of rhythm, repetition and confident decision making. And Steffen still is on the younger side. But after spending the 2019–20 season on loan at Fortuna Düsseldorf, Steffen returned to City, his parent club, knowing he’d spend the vast majority of his time training without weekend reward. The consensus suggested that the absence of match minutes might signal the end of his time atop Berhalter’s depth chart.
But Man City training isn’t like training at other clubs. It’s one of the finest teams in the world, stocked with international stars and managed by the legendary Pep Guardiola. Think of the stories that came out of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where members of the U.S. Dream Team said their practices represented the stiffest challenge they faced. Over the summer, Berhalter was banking on a similar crucible benefiting his goalkeeper in Manchester.
“Man City is a super high level,” Berhalter said in August. “To gain that experience for a year, to be in that training environment and have the opportunity to potentially break into that team is exciting, and I think it’d be worth it.”
City’s plan was to field Steffen in EFL Cup games, at least. Guardiola’s side has won the secondary cup competition three seasons in a row.
“You always have to weigh if you’re going to be sitting on the bench and not playing enough games, but to me that opportunity alone is something special. Not too many players in the world get a chance to play for one club like that,” Berhalter said. “Hopefully they continue to play goalies in cups and other competitions and you can get some games there … Hopefully the national team can feature heavily in his development in that case.”
And so Steffen remains the clear No. 1 heading into Thursday’s friendly against Wales in Cardiff—the USA’s first game in nine months—and next Monday’s match against Panama. On Berhalter’s team, Steffen is a leader. He’s been capped 17 times and will enjoy a share of the spotlight and responsibility he doesn’t get at City. His backup, Ethan Horvath, isn’t the regular starter at his club either, although he did get some UEFA Champions League minutes for Club Brugge last month.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Steffen said he’s ready to bear the burden and that he’s convinced his commitment to Man City is already paying off.
“The talent they have at that club, just to be in training with those guys every day is making me better,” Steffen said. “It’s pushing me in ways that I definitely wasn’t pushed in the past at different levels of my career. Like I said, it’s one of the best clubs in the world and I’m really enjoying getting to just learn new things, look at how they view football over there. Just in every aspect it’s quicker. It’s faster. It’s more intense. It’s sharper. You’ve really got to be focused and dialed in and kind of on your game every day, every training. You can’t take days off. You can’t really take any time off during training, and for me, it’s really good to see the professionalism of how these guys work day in and day out.”
Steffen left the University of Maryland after the 2014 NCAA season for Germany to play with SC Freiburg, then returned to the U.S. and signed with the Columbus Crew, where Berhalter was his head coach. Steffen was the 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and in the summer of ’19, he departed for Manchester. He didn’t stay long, however. Steffen quickly moved on to Düsseldorf, because it’s so vital for goalies to get games.
Steffen performed well across 18 starts for Fortuna before injuring his knee in January. He never made it back into the lineup.
“It was a tough time in Germany with it. It was frustrating. We just couldn’t seem to find the right ways to go about things and get me back on the field,” Steffen said Tuesday. “Going back to City, they really took good care of me and made sure I got fit the right way and strong again and all that. So yeah, the knee is good.”
Steffen’s praise for City doesn’t end there. From the player care staff—“Anything, anything at all, they’re one call away,” he said—to the coaching, it sounds like an ideal soccer environment. Even though his immersion at the club has been hindered by coronavirus protocols that limit team functions and interaction, Steffen said he’s seen enough to know spending the 2020–21 season there is the right move.
“I feel like I’ve already grown on the field with City,” he said. “Their goalie coach is really detailed and is very eager to make me a better goalkeeper, and then just working with those guys day in, day out—the training, the level of intensity and skill and talent and everything that goes into it, I feel myself growing. Obviously getting games week in and week out is most important, and that’s what we want. That’s what I want. And right now, I’m trusting the process. I’m getting these games in with the EFL Cup and I’m just trying to learn from the guys in training, from the staff, and then hopefully come into these [national team] camps and getting games here. The rest will work itself out as long as I work hard and continue to trust the process.”
Steffen has played twice for Guardiola. He was in net for City’s 2–1 win over Bournemouth in the EFL Cup opener on Sept. 24, and then again a week later in a 3–0 triumph over Burnley. Man City will visit Arsenal in the quarterfinals on Dec. 22, and Steffen said he expects to play that game as well.
Following Steffen’s debut, Guardiola told reporters, "He was calm. He was safe. He gave a good performance.”
But that’s not enough to unseat Ederson, the 27-year-old Brazilian. This is the harsh reality for a goalkeeper. Only one can play at a time. A team’s second-best midfielder likely plays 90 minutes a game. The second-best goalie rides the pine. And this is true even for top-tier netminders. Just ask Ederson, who’s been capped only nine times by his country because of Liverpool’s Alisson.
So Steffen will train, and then train some more, and try to get as much out of it as he can.
“They’re just so much more detailed than anything I’ve ever really been a part of,” he said of City’s practice sessions. “Whether that’s hand positioning when you’re just catching the ball, or it's a set position on a certain shot, or 1-v-1—a little duel—there’s so many little aspects that I obviously knew of and I know the techniques, but I feel like I never really got the reasons of why you do that. And so I feel like I’m learning some new techniques [and] some reasons why these techniques are going to help me in the long run.”
He knows he’ll need more games eventually. He also knows there’s time. And so he’ll play for the USA, he’ll likely get a shot at Arsenal, and he’ll use his daily experience at City to turn himself into a goalkeeper who’s in high demand. That’s the task in front of him. Steffen said upon joining City that he isn’t setting long-term goals for himself. He doesn’t want to lose track of what’s in front of him. Getting through a long season will require focusing on the day-to-day, and not worrying about how much is ahead.
“Games are different than training. Obviously we all know that. And games are what we want to do, what we want to play. That’s why we play this sport, is to compete,” Steffen said Tuesday.
“So, yeah, I want to get games. My plan is to get games. And I feel like coming from Germany, being out so long, right now City is giving me a lot of confidence to go back out on the field, and each day the keeper coach, the keepers, the players, they’re pushing me to get better and I feel like I'm in that process,” he continued. “Just being around those high-level players has made me better and has made me just a more confident player as well. So I’m really happy with where I’m at right now.”