After a stellar 2017 campaign with Columbus Crew SC, Zack Steffen has leapt into the goalkeeper converasation for the U.S. Men’s National Team. Fresh off of his first career start with the senior MNT- a 1-0 shutout win over Paraguay—here are five things to know about the young ‘keeper on the rise.
A native of Downington, Pa., Steffen played youth soccer with Philadelphia Union youth affiliate FC Delco and spent time with the Union’s academy during its early seasons. In 2011-12, he was named U.S. Soccer Development Academy Eastern Conference Player of the Year. After graduation from Downington West High School, he headed south for college at the University of Maryland.
The ‘keeper made an instant impact for the Terrapins, playing every minute in goal and leading UMD to the NCAA Final. Steffen’s freshman campaign marked the Terps’ most successful NCAA Championship run since 2008. He took home NCAA Championship Most Valuable Defensive Player for his postseason efforts.
Steffen continued to anchor the net for Maryland his sophomore season, once again logging every minute in net for the team. In the Terrapins’ first season in the Big Ten, he guided the squad to the conference tournament title game, earning Most Valuable Defensive Player honors en route. Over the course of his two collegiate seasons, Steffen tallied 17 clean sheets.
YOUTH NATIONAL TEAMS
After regular call-ups to the U-18 MNT, Steffen made the U-20 MNT squad for the CONCACAF Championship and ensuing 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey as one of the team’s youngest players. In both tournaments, Steffen served as the third ‘keeper and gained valuable international experience as a backup to Cody Cropper and Kendall McIntosh.
Steffen’s first international breakout came in the next U-20 World Cup cycle. He and midfielder Kellyn Acosta returned from the 2013 side to help lead the team in New Zealand. After he recorded a clean sheet in a 1-0 Round of 16 victory over Colombia, Steffen locked down the U.S. net in a marathon quarterfinal against Serbia. He kept Orlovi scoreless for 120 minutes and held strong through nine rounds of penalty kicks. The USA would fall 6-5 to the eventual champions, but the team earned its best finish at the tournament since 2007.
STARTING HIS PROFESSIONAL CAREER
In December 2014, Steffen decided to forego his final two seasons at Maryland and sign a professional contract with Bundesliga-side SC Freiburg. While he struggled to find a rhythm in Germany, he earned his first senior MNT call-up in May 2016 for a pre-Copa America Centenario camp in Puerto Rico. A few months later, he decided to return stateside with a transfer to Columbus Crew SC midway through the M.L.S. season.
While Steffen spent most of the 2016 campaign on loan with the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds, he entered 2017 locked into a preseason battle against veteran Brad Stuver to be the Crew’s No. 1 ‘keeper. Despite some early struggles, Steffen came into his own over the course of the season, as he played every league minute for Crew SC and helped lead the team to the playoffs.
2017 M.L.S. CUP PLAYOFFS
While Steffen proved to be one of the league’s top goalkeepers over the course of the regular season, his performance in the 2017 M.L.S. Cup Playoffs announced his presence as one of the USA’s most-exciting prospects in the net.
The Crew entered the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed to set up a tough draw on the road at expansion upstart Atlanta United FC. Atlanta broke the league’s single-game attendance record earlier in the season, and its first-ever playoff game drew a postseason-record crowd of 67,221. Atlanta’s raucous atmosphere fueled an attack that stood among the most dangerous in the league.
In interviews after the game, Steffen said that he hoped to silence the crowd. That’s exactly what he did at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Steffen made eight saves over 120 minutes to hold Atlanta scoreless.
After extra time, he secured the victory for Columbus in penalty kicks, stopping Atlanta’s first two attempts, as well as watching its fourth and final kick go off the post, all leading to the side’s 3-1 shootout win.
In the conference semifinals, the Crew upset No. 2 seed New York City FC by a 4-3 aggregate, setting up a tie with Supporters’ Shield winner Toronto FC in Eastern Conference Final. Steffen held the Reds scoreless in the opening leg at home and stopped a penalty kick in the road second leg to push Toronto to the brink. A 60th-minute goal from Jozy Altidoe ended the Crew’s remarkable run, but Steffen starred in their unexpected postseason success.
HERE AND NOW
After his standout 2017, Steffen was one of four goalkeepers called to the MNT’s annual January Camp earlier this year, his first National Team invite since Puerto Rico. January also provided his first cap, taking over for Bill Hamid in the second half of a scoreless draw against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Jan. 28.
After another strong start to the M.L.S. season, Steffen earned a consecutive call-up to the MNT’s March camp in Cary, N.C. He earned his first start for the USA against Paraguay on March 27, making three saves to keep his first clean sheet in a 1-0 victory against La Albiroja.Read more
Tyler Adams on the run through an opponent’s back line is a sorry sight for a defense. Whether making a penetrating run or with the ball at his feet, all the defenders can do is make chase and pray that the goalkeeper makes a play.
Since his first U.S. Men’s National Team appearance last November, pace and awareness have stood out on the pitch. He’s clean on the ball and capable of runs that slice through the defense. Prior to the MNT’s friendly against Paraguay, the coaching staff thought that La Albirroja’s style might fall susceptible to the kind of deep runs on which Adams can be so dangerous.
Just over 40 minutes into Tuesday night’s game, the Paraguay defense saw what should become a regular worry for the USA’s foes: Adams alone on the run directly towards the net. Fed a perfect ball from midfielder Marky Delgado, the 19-year-old headed for goal with a prime scoring opportunity.
Before he could get a shot off, the goalkeeper came out to challenge and took down the New York Red Bulls homegrown. The foul earned a penalty kick, and up stepped Bobby Wood who slotted it in the right side to give the USA a 1-0 victory. Delgado and Adams’ dynamic combination provided an exciting glimpse of what the future can hold for the MNT.
“Marky is a good passer. He’s a connector and he’s got good feet. Tyler has an incredible engine,” head coach Dave Sarachan said. “The combination of a good passer and a guy that can run could be deadly. Tyler timing his run was excellent. They each utilized their strength on that goal.”
The coaches assessed from scouting that Paraguay’s back line tended to play high up on the field. If the U.S. attack could break through, plenty of opportunity awaited behind the defense. Part of the game plan involved probing entry into that open space with runs from deep within the midfield. That duty fit Adams’ talents perfectly.
“I felt that with my pace, one of those runs would be on,” Adams said. “We emphasized breaking the lines and taking their offensive and defensive players out of the game, so finding those pockets was really important for me and Marky. Being able to turn and play forward was really important and we did that well tonight.”
While Adams provided the explosive speed, he also made the key turn in the build-up to him drawing a penalty. Left back Jorge Villafana placed a short pass forward to Adams, who was on the move back downfield. Captain Wil Trapp pointed Adams to look for Delgado, who had found some open central space. The teenager received Villafana’s ball and seamlessly pinged it past a defender to Delgado as he made a fluid turn upfield. From there, the speedy midfielder went off to the races towards the goal with several chasing Paraguayans in tow.
“We have a really good connection that we built over the week training together,” Delgado said. “That competitiveness over the week really built a good chemistry coming into the game.”
Delgado took a few steps after he gathered Adams’ ball and then launched a picture-perfect pass downfield. It whizzed past several Paraguay players before Adams won the foot race on his sprint to the net. The 19-year-old took two dribbles and looked to cut left when goalkeeper Roberto Fernandez slid up to challenge. He grabbed Adams’ feet as he drove past and the midfielder’s tumble prompted the referee to award a penalty kick.
From the spot, Wood coolly slotted the ball to the right of Fernandez. The conversion proved the game-winner in the USA’s 1-0 victory over La Albirroja.
“Marky found me on a good ball and obviously I had to do the rest,” Adams said. “Looking to tuck it back post, the keeper took a good angle on it so I just tried to drag it across my body. I knew he caught my leg so I was able to go down and draw a penalty and then Bobby stepped up and buried it.”
Adams is just 19 years old; Delgado just 22. Perhaps the most exciting takeaway from their well-executed combination is that it may be the first of many from a promising corps of talented young American midfielders.
“Once you’re in the arena and on the field, nobody cares how many caps you have,” Sarachan said. “Some guys get older and now the next generation gets on the field.”Read more
Against Paraguay, the MNT’s next generation started to earn its stripes and the three players to earn first caps against La Albirroja made their presence known on the pitch. Marky Delgado, Andrija Novakovich and Tim Weah’s contributions on the evening shone rays of sunshine on the future of the U.S. team.
- READ MORE: Five First Time Call-ups to March MNT Camp
“It was definitely a special feeling,” Delgado said. “I really tried to soak it all in, every second of it. From the crowd to taking my first step on the field with the jersey, it’s an experience that I’ll never forget.”
A historic 2017 season as an important piece of treble-winning Toronto FC propelled Delgado to his first MNT invite in January. His return this March earned him his first cap as a starter against Paraguay.
- READ MORE: Marky Deglado’s Path to MNT Debut
Delgado facilitated the USA’s most dangerous chance of the evening when he delivered a perfectly-placed long ball to a streaking Tyler Adams. Adams took it in stride on a run towards the net and drew the penalty that set up the game-winning goal.
Prior to this month’s camp in Cary, Novakovich wasn’t a well-known commodity in U.S. Soccer circles. The second-leading goalscorer in the Dutch second division, he earned his first cap as a 77th minute substitute for Bobby Wood. Novakovich stands out with his six-foot-four frame, and Paraguay’s back line took notice as he made some dangerous attacking runs.
“It was a very proud moment, very honored to wear the stars and stripes,” Novakovich said. “I was lucky enough to get on today and make my debut. I believe in myself. I was just happy for the opportunity to show what I can do in training and in the games. You want more and you just got to keep doing your best.”
Novakovich’s most threatening chance came on a ball from 18-year-old Tim Weah, the MNT’s youngest player in Cary. After he made his debut into the Paris Saint-Germain first team last month and turned in a standout performance in last fall’s FIFA U-17 World Cup, Weah entered camp as one of the program’s most exciting prospects.
Before he entered the match in the 86th minute, Weah warmed up on the sideline as a nervous wreck. Upon entering in the 86th minute, he made a little bit of history as the first player born in the 2000s to appear for the MNT. Though he only logged a few minutes, the PSG attacker impressed in the composed cameo appearance as he nearly notched his first career assist to Novakovich. He hopes the brief debut serves as just the launch of a long rise with the MNT.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” Weah said. “It’s a great feeling getting to play my first game for my country at such a young age. There’s a lot of nervousness coming on to the field, but after that first pass, I was like ‘I’ve got to calm down, I’ve got to chill out, I’ve got to play my game. I’m just hoping that I get more call-ups and that it’s a great future for U.S. Soccer.”Read more