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Columbus Crew SC backup keeper a crucial spot with Zack Steffen departing

Mar 10, 2018; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen (23) watches a ball in the second half against the Montreal Impact at MAPFRE Stadium. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Every time Zack Steffen jogs onto the field this season for Crew SC, he will be cherished. It’s possible the club won’t ever have a goalkeeper as good as Steffen again, which is more of a credit to him.

But for every save he makes, the focus will be on what lies ahead once Steffen departs in the summer. After the Crew announced Steffen will transfer to English club Manchester City when the secondary transfer window opens July 9, the No. 2 goalkeeper spot became the most closely watched position on the team.

Caleb Porter said he and the coaching staff have a plan in place for life without Steffen, while maximizing potential while he is still with them.

“That (plan) will be part evaluating what we have, as well as having bullets in the barrel,” Porter said.

What the Crew has now is Joe Bendik, 29, who is entering his eighth MLS season and started the past three with Orlando City, in each of which he allowed at least 50 goals. He signed with the Crew in December and has a 43-79-48 career record.

Bendik has more experience than keepers Jon Kempin or Ben Lundgaard. Kempin, 25, was the primary backup in 2018, his first season with the Crew. Since first earning MLS playing time in 2014 with Sporting Kansas City, he has played in only 19 games, including going 2-1-2 in five starts last season with Columbus. Lundgaard, 23, was on loan last season to Indy Eleven of the United Soccer League.

The Crew is Bendik’s fifth club of his career and third in MLS. For some players that can be tiresome, but he said he views it as another opportunity to learn and be around a solid group of goalkeepers.

“It’s refreshing in that way, but it’s a lot of work as well,” Bendik said.

When the keeper position is turned over in the summer, whoever assumes the role won’t necessarily be jumping in without any playing time. He might actually be playing sooner than expected.

Steffen is expected to be with the U.S. men’s national team March 18-26 and June 3-11, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup runs from June 15 to July 7. It’s possible that Steffen’s final game with the Crew could be as early as June 1 against New York City FC.

As much as playing in England is a dream for him, Steffen said it is business as usual.

“We have discussions all the time. You know how close goalkeepers are,” he said. “We talk about what we need in the goalkeeper role back there and we’re all trying to get on the same page. It’ll take some time, but we’re all working as one.”

Kempin said Steffen has helped him with playing with his feet, and Kempin has helped Steffen manage his body and fitness off the field.

“Being a backup goalkeeper is a really tough and interesting conversation, because you’ve got to kind of be ready for anything,” Kempin said. “Now, knowing that there’s a chance to take over for Zack come summer, it’s a unique but exciting situation.”

With just three exhibition games remaining before the season begins on March 2 against the New York Red Bulls, there is only so much time for Porter to get the final evaluation on one of the most important spots on the roster.

“I want to give them the opportunity to put their best foot forward, and they’ve both taken their chances and done well,” Porter said of Kempin and Lundgaard. “For us, it’s a good problem to have.”
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