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Zack Steffen: The Manchester City signing in the spotlight

Nov 4, 2018; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen (23) in the second half against the New York Red Bulls at Mapfre Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It was one of the most spectacular transfer announcements in North American soccer in 2018. A transfer worth between $7 million and $10 million will send Columbus Crew keeper Zack Steffen to Manchester City in the summer of 2019.

“This is a historic transaction for the Club and a special moment for Zack Steffen that we are immensely proud of,” Crew SC interim general manager Pat Onstad said in a club statement.

The transfer makes Steffen the most expensive outgoing goalkeeper in league history and is highest amount the Crew have ever received for any player. Whether Zack Steffen will ever play for Manchester City remains to be seen, however. 

ESPN’s England expert, Raphael Honigstein, described this deal as a “Moneyball sort of move” by the English giants.

“Manchester City are just a flagship of a host of other clubs that are affiliated. So it be easy for them to give him game time at some of the European or even US franchises,” Honigstein explained during an interview with ESPN. “I think it is a good spot to be, because you will sort of be involved with really good players at really good clubs. Whether that is at City, hmmm, I think it is a bit early for he is 23 and for a keeper that is still very young and he needs to have a lot more experience at this level.”

Honigstein, of course, has a point. The 2018 MLS season was only Steffen’s second full season as a No. 1 keeper at the senior level. Before joining Columbus in 2017, Steffen had played in the second-tier United Soccer League for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and before that spent two years with German outfit SC Freiburg. 

During the 2015-16 season, Steffen played 14 games for SC Freiburg’s under-23 side in the Regionalliga Südwest (fourth division). Freiburg played in the Bundesliga 2 (second division), but Steffen struggled to break into the first team and even had difficulties to maintain his starting position in the reserve side. 

Making one step back to the United States to play in the USL, therefore, made sense at the time. Within one year, Steffen was with the big boys in Major League Soccer, playing all 34 regular-season games throughout the 2017 season. 

Furthermore, Steffen was the key behind Columbus’ unlikely run the Eastern Conference finals — his penalty heroics in the knockout round of the 2017 MLS Cup, in particular, come to mind. The Crew were beaten by eventual champion Toronto FC over two legs in the conference final, but Steffen had taken the mantle as the most exciting keeper in the league.

It was a season that earned Steffen a reputation, which he further cemented throughout the 2018 MLS campaign. At the end of it, he was named the 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. He also started in six out of 11 United States national team games this year.

At the same time, there are some doubts whether Steffen is the sort of keeper who can make it at a big club like Manchester City. Doubts somewhat underlined by some key statistics this season.

One problem is Steffen is prone to the odd blunder. For example, in 2018 he on average conceded 1.21 goals per 90 minutes played last season, but his expected conceded goals per 90 minutes was only 1.09. In other words, although Steffen did reasonably well with his goals against average his xCG suggests some of the goals he did concede were avoidable.

Then there is Steffen’s rank of 20th in the league for shots against. The Columbus keeper faced just 118 shots this season overall. Of all regular starters in the league throughout the 2018 season, only Stefan Marinović (113 shots in 24 games) and Jesse Gonzalez (94 shots in 22 games) faced fewer shots. 

What then did Manchester City see in the keeper? Talent. Steffen is both athletic and strong and — this aspect is perhaps the most important for any team trained by Pep Guardiola — reasonably good with his feet. 

Among all regular starters in MLS, Steffen was sixth among goalkeepers who regularly left the line. He left the line on 62 occasions last season, which puts him in the same category as Portland Timbers’ Jeff Attinella (65), Atlanta United’s Brad Guzan (65) and Los Angeles FC’s Tyler Miller (69). Leading the league in that stat is Seattle’s Stefan Frei, with 90 excursions from the line, 11 more than second-place Andre Blake of the Philadelphia Union.

Going by hard data alone, the scouting platform Wyscout has Steffen ranked the 11th best keeper in the league, just ahead of LAFC’s Miller and the Colorado Rapids’ Tim Howard, but behind other established names like New York Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles, Frei, Tim Melia from Sporting Kansas City and Matt Turner from the New England Revolution.

Granted, hard data alone is not everything when it comes to evaluating a player. Furthermore, only New England’s Turner is in the same age category as Steffen — all the other keepers who outranked him are older than 30.

Oct 11, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; Columbia midfielder James Rodr’iguez (10) tires to get a shot past United States goalkeeper Zack Steffen (12) in the first half during an international friendly soccer match at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 11, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; Columbia midfielder James Rodr’iguez (10) tires to get a shot past United States goalkeeper Zack Steffen (12) in the first half during an international friendly soccer match at Raymond James Stadium. (Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports)

Then, there are Steffen’s non-classic goalkeeper abilities that play a significant role.

That ability to play outside of a goalkeeper’s comfort zone has been a critical aspect in Guardiola’s game. It was for that reason Manchester City spent €40 million (more than $45.5 million) on Brazilian keeper Ederson last summer. Guardiola, after all, worked together with the ultimate sweeper-keeper in Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich between 2013 and 2016. 

Steffen hits that benchmark well. The 23-year-old completed 98.5 percent of his average 16.88 passes this season and completed 68.1 percent of his long balls. Perfect for the Manchester City model it appears. 

The question is will Steffen ever play for City? That appears unlikely.

The more logical route for the keeper will be a loan deal to one of the many other clubs owned by the Abu Dhabi United investment group that operates Manchester City. Alongside the MLS franchise New York City FC, the group also owns Melbourne City FC in Australia, Yokohama F. Marinos in Japan and the La Liga side FC Girona. 

The club also has partnership agreements with other European clubs in six different countries. Manchester City is experiencing a bit of a goalkeeper crisis since Ederson’s backup, Claudio Bravo, is sidelined with an injury for the foreseeable future, but Steffen’s deal will not go through until the summer. 

That suggests City sees this as a development deal. The keeper will likely be loaned out to one of the many affiliate clubs, and should he ever make the grade then be recalled to Manchester. Otherwise, he might be sold off with future profit in mind. 

For now, the move to Manchester appears almost like a promise. A dream that could one day become true for Steffen, but a dream that, despite the already completed deal, still seems far from reality. 

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