ANNAPOLIS, MD — Four years ago, Zack Steffen stood between the posts for the United States U-20 national team during the World Cup in New Zealand. Up a goal late in the Round of 16 match against Colombia, a foul by midfielder Kellyn Acosta resulted in a penalty kick. Steffen stood tall and dove the right way to eventually help the US advance to the quarterfinals.
Saving penalty kicks has become somewhat of a staple for the now-former Columbus Crew keeper. Later in 2015, Steffen made two similar heroic penalty saves to help the University of Maryland advance to the Big Ten conference final. His shot-stopping ability and calmness under pressure caught the eye of international scouts and, a few months later, he was on his way to Germany to begin his professional career with SC Freiburg.
With his last game for Columbus now behind him, Steffen begins the next chapter of his career with Manchester City. The club bought him last year for $10 million — the highest transfer fee for an American goalkeeper. He will immediately go on loan to German side Fortuna Dusseldorf, first reported by Paul Tenorio of The Athletic. This journey takes him just 275 miles south of where his international club career began in Freiburg.
“There is a big difference. I have grown up on the field and off the field,” Steffen said about his second trip to Europe. “Back then, it was more of taking a risk and going to explore the world and see what Europe is like and taking a challenge. Now, this is what I want 100 percent. This is what I need to better myself on the field and off the field.”
Then just 20 years old, Steffen wasn’t quite ready for the professional environment of the European scene. After spending a few seasons as the third choice in SC Freiberg’s second team, it took a trip back to the states to find his love for the game again.
Gregg Berhalter, then the Crew SC coach, put a discovery claim on Steffen while he was in Germany and brought him to Columbus when it was clear the goalkeeper was looking for a change in scenery.
“What I was very impressed with early on when I started working with him was how calm he is in situations and how calm he is for a young goalkeeper,” Berhalter said.
Berhalter specifically referenced Steffen’s saves against the French national team in Les Bleus’ final tune-up before going on to win the World Cup last summer and the now-famous penalty shootout performance against Atlanta United in 2017.
“That is what he does,” Berhalter said. “This moment for him is a transitional moment, but he will take it in stride. He is ready to go to his next adventure.”
Steffen was among a handful of senior team players catching a glimpse of the US U-20 World Cup win over France on a laptop Tuesday. While now a spectator watching the U-20s from afar, Steffen is in yet another period of transition, one not too different from where he was when he played for the U-20s.
“I am happy to join the national team and have this competitive tournament, my first competitive tournament with the national team to kind of distract me from the whole Columbus thing,” Steffen said. “It will go by quick, and then I will go back to Columbus for a few days, pack up, say my goodbyes officially, and then I will fly over there.”
Steffen is Berhalter’s No. 1 choice in net for the Concacaf Gold Cup, a tournament where the USMNT can redefine itself on an international stage. For Steffen, it is an opportunity to hone his skills in yet another period of major transition and growth.
“There is more pressure, more expectations,” Steffen said. “It has to be a higher focus level, harder work rate. I have to take it just a notch further, and I am ready for it.”