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What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal: Zack Steffen

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 16: Zack Steffen of Manchester City celebrates after the Premier League match between Manchester City and Burnley at Etihad Stadium on October 16, 2021 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?

It is true that the current generation of United States men’s national team field players have established themselves in Europe in numbers never before seen. However, I think it’s important to ground this wave within proper historical context, lest anyone think that the Christian Pulisic cohort was the first to travel across the Atlantic. In fact, the majority of the USMNT’s all-time most-capped players have at some point rolled the dice in Europe, so the jump itself is nothing new. The difference now is in terms of volume, youth, and prestige. Brian McBride getting the Fulham captaincy at age 35 is great, but it’s a different sort of achievement compared to the en masse breakthroughs at dozens of clubs by 18-year-olds. That said, the active USMNT dudes aren’t superior to their predecessors across the board, and the group might even be lagging behind in one very important position: goalkeeper.

The USMNT has almost always had strong goalkeeping play. This is partially because scouting and training a keeper takes considerably less work and infrastructure than, say, a midfielder. Whatever the cause, Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, Brads Friedel and Guzan, and Marcus Hahnemann combined for a stunning 30-year run between the sticks for the USMNT, during which the team almost always had multiple keepers starting for Premier League clubs. Today’s American goalkeeping ranks simply can’t compare to the sheer depth and quality of those years. That reality might be worrying, if not for the fortuitous presence of one true baller in the No. 1 jersey. That’s right: It is time to explain to you Zack Steffen’s deal.

Who Does He Play For?

Manchester City, the best team in the best league in the world.

Steffen’s path to the top was a rather circuitous one. He played two college seasons with Maryland before standout performances with U.S. youth national teams piqued the attention of European clubs. Freiburg signed him in 2015, though he washed out after only 14 appearances in two years with the reserve team. That could well have been it for Steffen as a top-tier prospect. Though he showed himself to be a legitimately elite talent with the USYNT, it’s much harder to dislodge a starting goalkeeper from his place on the team sheet than it is for any other position on the field. That is why even really good keepers often have trouble breaking onto the scene, as they’ll sometimes find themselves stuck for years behind established starters who never give them a chance. (Word to Emiliano Martínez.) Especially for the goalkeeping position, timing is everything.

Luckily, it didn’t take Steffen too long to reestablish himself once he left Freiburg. Steffen signed with the Columbus Crew in 2016 as the third-string netminder, and didn’t make an appearance for the team all year. However, he seized the starting job coming into the following season, and helped guide the Crew to a Conference Finals appearance. The season after that, Steffen won the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award, shined in his USMNT senior-team debut later that summer, and was named 2018 USMNT Player of the Year.

It was clear by that point that Steffen was too good to stay in MLS. Still, it was a shock when the reigning, record-setting Premier League champions Manchester City shelled out $7 million for him. Steffen joined City in July 2019 and was immediately loaned out to Bundesliga minnows Fortuna Düsseldorf. At last, he’d earned an opportunity to start for a top-flight European team, though he’d have a hard task keeping an anemic Düsseldorf team above the drop zone.

Steffen’s performances for Düsseldorf were fantastic. The team fielded a real piece-of-shit defense in front of him, but Steffen almost singlehandedly kept Düsseldorf out of the bottom three with a spectacular first half of the season. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious knee injury halfway through the campaign. The club nosedived without him and ended the season relegated.

After his stellar performances in the Bundesliga, Steffen was hauled back to Manchester in 2020 to serve as Ederson’s primary backup. Playing time has been relatively scarce for Steffen since then, and he’s only made 18 appearances for City, though that includes two Champions League appearances and five more in a League Cup–winning run last season.

To be clear, a starting job at City is very far from Steffen’s grasp. Ederson is one of the best keepers in the world, and, crucially for a Pep Guardiola team, is perhaps the actual best passing keeper in the world. Steffen recently signed a new contract with the club, though one wonders how content he will be to serve as the League Cup keeper and general backup, and how content City will be to keep him in such a role when he could probably turn them a nice little profit were they to sell him to a club looking for a starter. But from a USMNT perspective, club playing time for Steffen is less important than it is for field players. He’s clearly improved as a distributor at City, and he’s in one of the most intense training environments possible. Ideally he’d get a shot to start with an EPL club soon, but his current role seems to be working just fine, too.

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?

How Does He Play?

Goalkeeperly.

Steffen’s best attribute is his shot stopping. He has saved an impressive 36 percent of penalties he’s faced, and his wingspan, general athleticism, and fearlessness make him a tough keeper to beat. He’s also developed into a steady passer. Pressure doesn’t faze Steffen, and he can make short and long passes at an above-average clip. His fearlessness can get him into trouble, as he’s been concerningly liable to concede dumb goals after overextending himself. Consistency is what you want from your keeper, and for all of Steffen’s undeniable skills, he needs to stop getting owned in such preventable fashion. Again, he rarely gets owned, but the line between permanent backup and everyday starter can be very thin.

Wonderteen Index

The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.

He’s a keeper and he’s 26, so, like, five out of 11.

I don’t see why Steffen can’t become a top-tier goalkeeper, especially since he’s made great strides as a passer since joining Guardiola’s outfit. The goalkeeper meta-game is changing, and stoppers have to be able to run out to sweep up attacks and also distribute ably under heavy pressure. That’s why Steffen’s top competition for the U.S. spot, Matt Turner, has been pushed back to the bench despite some heroic feats of shot-stopping. Steffen isn’t ever going to seriously push Ederson, but he could certainly carve a good, starting role for himself at a club maybe just a step or two below Man City’s level.

Can He Play Right Back?

The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.

Not only does he command right backs as part of the goalkeeper’s sacred duties of Pointing Around At Defenders and Yelling A Bunch While Clapping, Steffen started his career as a field player. Good sweeper-keepery and capable passing? That’s basically what a right back does, so yes.

Show To Me A Cool Highlight

Here are a few:

How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?

He plays goalkeeper and he’s good at it.

How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?

Turner had an incredible 2021, Ethan Horvath’s penalty save against Andrés Guardado to secure the Nations League final was one of the moments of the year, but this spot is Steffen’s and will be his as long as he’s healthy. He’s so good at goalkeeping, man.

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