By James Piercy, Football Whispers
Whether by accident or design – most often a bit of both – some countries have a habit of turning out specific types of soccer player.
For Italy, read centre-backs; Spain, midfielders; Brazil, skilful forwards; Argentina, playmakers; and in the case of the United States it’s been goalkeepers.
There are a multitude of theories as to why this happened but ultimately success breeds success and role models create a standard for which the younger generation aspire to: Frank Borghi, Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Freidel, Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann and Brad Guzan. And there have been many more.
Five of those keepers made an impact in the Premier League as starters for leading clubs, and although it’s a stretch right now to imagine Zack Steffen as a rival to Ederson, he could be the man to continue this rich tradition with the 23-year-old Columbus Crew No 1 being lined up by Manchester City.
Who Is Zack Steffen?
City are reportedly preparing a bid in the region of $7million-$10million for the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year who is widely considered the future of the USMNT. However, Steffen will have to be patient in waiting for his chance in England due to work permit stipulations.
He holds just six full international caps which is below the requisite threshold to be granted an immediate permit so may have to be loaned out for a season, with City’s sister clubs Girona of La Liga and the Eredivisie’s NAC Breda obvious landing points.
Putting aside the significance of the proposed transfer to US Soccer, it makes complete sense why City would be in the market for another goalkeeper – especially one whose development implies he could become a special player over time.
Ederson is the established No.1 at the Etihad Stadium and has been a huge hit following his arrival from Benfica in the summer of 2017. Beyond him, goalkeeper is one of the few positions where the Premier League champions appear light.
Claudio Bravo is Ederson’s deputy but is injured and out of contract in 2020 so the equation is, seemingly, that Steffen can be signed, loaned out for a season and then assume the role of understudy to the Brazilian in 18 months.
It wouldn’t be Steffen’s first experience of European football either. Three years ago he was third-choice at Bundesliga side Freiburg. That was following a breakout summer when he excelled at the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand where he was the team’s outstanding individual as they reached the quarter-finals before losing to Serbia on penalties.
However, after failing to displace Freiburg No.1 Alexander Schwolow, Steffen returned to his homeland in 2016 to sign for Columbus Crew, becoming their starting goalkeeper in the 2017 MLS season making 39 appearances as they reached the Eastern Conference finals.
After an impressive debut campaign, this most recent campaign has exposed his skills to a much wider audiences as his performances saw him named in the MLS All-Star Team as the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year.
What City will be looking at closely is his distribution. Steffen ranked third among MLS keepers for accurate passes this season (21.53) and while his long-range passing was a low 50 per cent – something which will improve working under the famously demanding Guardiola.
What will appeal to the Catalan coach and his scouts, however, is how proficient he was in his short passing, completing 97.5 per cent of all attempts.
It’s an area of his game that will have to be worked on and fine-tuned before he reaches the expected standards but the raw tools are there.
What has caught the eye, as is the case with any goalkeeper, has been his shot-stopping, particularly from close range when he’s off-balance and had to quickly change direction. At 6ft 3ins he’s not the tallest of ‘keepers but his agility ensures he uses his frame to its maximum. His save percentage was an above league average 64.1%
Steffen has also showed himself to be an excellent sweeper-keeper, anticipating counter-attacks, reading the danger and then accelerating from his penalty area to clear his lines. It’s all part of his overall athleticism.
International - USA
Born in Coatesville, PA, Steffen earned his maiden USMNT call for a training camp in Puerto Rico in May 2016. He didn't make an appearance but clearly made an impression as, in January this year, he was called up for a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina, making his debut. A second appearance and a maiden clean sheet against Paraguay followed soon after.
In June this year the 23-year-old put in a stunning display as the USMNT took on a France side who would go on to lift the FIFA World Cup just a few short weeks later, recording seven stops including a stunning double save to deny Nabil Fekir and Ousmane Dembélé in stoppage time.
The challenge now for Steffen is to emerge from the plethora of goalkeeping options available to the USMNT to take over from veteran Atlanta United stopper Brad Guzan. The 34-year-old is the nation's established No.1 but with Ethan Horvath (23), Jonathan Klinsmann (21) and Alex Bono (24) all still in their infancy as goalkeepers.
There is little debate that among MLS goalkeepers Steffen is not only the best in the business at the moment, but also the most promising in terms of his expected ceiling.
Whether the City transfer happens or not, it’s unconceivable not to imagine another European club signing him in the next 12 months if he maintains his level of performance for Columbus Crew.
Assuming Manchester City complete a deal, they will be signing a talented young goalkeeper for a comparatively low fee. For Steffen it’s a transfer that is surely nothing short of a dream. For United States soccer at large, it’s the continuation of a proud history and tradition.