This piece was originally published by USsoccer.com on Jan. 12, 2018
For U.S. Men’s National Team players, January Camp has long been about opportunity.
That word has meant a lot more for rising goalkeeper Zack Steffen the last year or so.
A top prospect in the Youth Men’s National Team program for a number of years, Steffen left the comfortable confines of the University of Maryland to sign with German club Freiburg at age 19 in 2014. The starter for the U.S. at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Steffen found a decent level of training in Germany, but lacked first-team minutes and made his way back home when he signed with Columbus Crew SC midway through 2016.
After spending that half-season on the bench, he was thrust into the starting role this past campaign, playing every minute of Crew SC’s league schedule, winning 16 matches and keeping nine clean sheets to help Columbus make the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“I think it’s really important for a goalkeeper to get games,” Steffen said of his first full MLS season. “You just feel more and more comfortable with the games you play, and then the postseason you get more nerves and motivation.”
The nerves and emotion of the postseason seemed to bring out the best in the 22-year-old goalkeeper. Facing the daunting task of playing away to expansion Atlanta United FC in the Knockout Round, he made an incredible eight saves to keep the home team scoreless during the course of 120 minutes. Taking the match to penalty kicks, he stunningly made two stops in the first two rounds, helping Crew SC see off the juggernaut Atlanta side in front of 67,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It was amazing,” said Columbus Crew SC captain and fellow January Camp attendee Wil Trapp. “I think from being in Atlanta, in an environment that was difficult in and of itself, but to perform the way he did was incredible. It kept us in the playoffs, it took us from one round to the next.”
Columbus then advanced past New York City FC in the next round before a showdown with Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Final. After a 0-0 draw during the first leg in Columbus, Steffen again saved a penalty, this time during regulation when he denied Victor Vazquez’s 26th minute spot kick. While he made five total stops in the match, TFC eventually squeaked by with a 1-0 victory.
Though the MLS Cup dream came up just short, Trapp credited Steffen’s body of work in 2017 for helping Columbus to the heights they reached during the season.
“The maturation of Zack this year was incredible and it really did show the evolution of not only him as a player, but our team throughout the season. It was interesting to see a young guy stepping in in his first year perform so well.”
While Steffen’s postseason performances stick out, his overall output placed him in line for an MNT call-up this January, and with more open picture at the goalkeeping position he’s now got an extended chance to further state his case.
For now, he’ll hope that three weeks of hard work will lead to his first MNT cap on Jan. 28 against Bosnia-Herzegovina and a good start to a follow-up season with Columbus in 2018.
“Getting that cap is the biggest goal for the next few weeks,” Steffen said. “At the same time, I’m here to experience January Camp, get ready for preseason and get back into the flow of things.”