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COLUMN: Steffen makes his case to be USMNT top keeper

COLUMN: Steffen makes his case to be USMNT top keeper

The United States men’s national team are picking up the pieces from a failed World Cup qualifying campaign — and have turned to younger players to carry the flag going forward.

One positive that has come from not qualifying for this year’s tournament in Russia, has provided the U.S. federation to turn the page and immediately begin providing many young players with a chance to make their mark with the National team.

One of those young players is Zack Steffen, who excelled here in Pittsburgh for a stint with the Riverhounds in 2016.

On Saturday, in its final tune-up before playing in the World Cup, France had hoped to fine tune its attack and build some momentum heading into a tournament which it is one of the favorites.

In a match which Les Bleus out shot the Americans, 19-2, but could only put eight shots on target, Steffen made a strong case that he could very well be the USMNT’s top keeper moving into the next four-year cycle.

“There were a couple of moments tonight that were spectacular from his free kick [on Nabil Fekir] towards the end and his save that had to be pushed out wide [on Ousmane Dembele],” said Dave Sarachan, USMNT coach. “I thought he was outstanding. I think he offers a good calm presence, and goalies are expected to make saves when you have to and he did that tonight. Zack has certainly made a great case for himself.”

Steffen began making his case a little less than two years ago right here in Pittsburgh.

The final months of the 2016 Pittsburgh Riverhounds season may have been a forgettable blur for many local soccer die hards. After all, the Hounds were limping toward the end of a 17-loss campaign in a season of turmoil and transition.

One position that was in constant flux was goalkeeper, as Hounds went through a half dozen players at the spot that season. At season’s end, they finally found some stability with Steffen, who came to the club as a newly signed 21-year old on loan from Columbus Crew, eager to show his new club that he was a keeper that they could build around.

“It was a great experience,” Steffen said, of his time in Pittsburgh. “Each save always gives you more confidence, and coming out for crosses helps the team. Each time I can touch the ball and help out the team, it just gives me more and more confidence.”

In nine appearances with the Hounds that season, Steffen took the opportunity to build his skill set as the team was going through a rough patch.

“It was definitely a learning experience for me,” Steffen said. “They went through two coaches and were in kind of a transition stage, but it was just good for me personally to get games and get repetition, and to be pushed. That kind of experience in that environment, I could just come in and lead from the back without knowing the team very well or knowing the players, so all-in-all it was very good.”

Steffen, a native of Coatesville, PA, excelled for youth club FC Delco, then went on to play a few years at the University of Maryland, but when German club SC Freiburg came calling — Steffen jumped at the opportunity. Steffen would make 14 appearances for SC Freiburg’s second division club.

Steffen used his opportunity in Germany and his first pro experience, much like another U.S. player with Pennsylvania roots, Christian Pulisic, to elevate his game.

By the time he came back to the United States, and signed with the Crew, he began to show that he could be an elite player in Pittsburgh.

With the Riverhounds, he often faced a lot of pressure, and was quickly thrown into numerous tough situations.

In 2017, Steffen was given the opportunity to earn the top spot with the Crew, and quickly ascended into a star role in Columbus — as a rock solid keeper in their successful season. Steffen shined in the MLS playoffs, especially in penalty kick shoot out win against Atlanta in November.

Now, the sky is the limit for Steffen to excel for USMNT.

While the next month may be a little painful for U.S. Soccer fans to endure not being in the World Cup — having young, promising young players provide hope that the next four year cycle will be a fun period.

The cornerstones of the rise of the next generation of the USMNT are shaping up to be from the Keystone State — Pulisic and Steffen.

A lot can happen in four years — but there’s plenty to be optimistic about if Steffen keeps this going.

 

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, and more. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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