For a young goalkeeper to leave a top European league club that has a history of developing players, there are to be a reason. For Zack Steffen, there were a few.
The American left home after two years at the University of Maryland, where he played every minute in the net for the Terrapins, to join German side SC Freiburg. After two seasons for the club’s reserve side, Steffen was ready to come home.
The question that stood in his way was where was home? Steffen was a Downingtown, PA native, who played for the Philadelphia Union’s youth team, yet unbeknownst to him Columbus Crew SC owned his rights.
How you ask? Thanks to a little foresight from Black & Gold head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter.
Since Steffen played with the Union’s youth team before the creation of Major League Soccer’s Homegrown program and the goalkeeper never signed — nor was offered — a contract by his local club, he was free to be claimed. Berhalter did that in January of 2015 by filing Discovery Option on Steffen.
"I knew that Columbus had a Discovery claim on me and I wasn’t really ever tied to the Philadelphia Union, especially after I made my decision to go over to Germany. So I was excited that they had first dibs kind of," Steffen said when he was introduced by the Crew SC.
While returning to the U.S. was certainly a factor, it was not the only aspect in his decision to play in MLS. Looking at Columbus’ coaching staff, Steffen saw something he really liked.
"I know that Pat Onstad had a great career and is a great coach and I know that coming back and being near my family and friends that I could strive with my career," he said. "There’s great coaches over there in Germany obviously and goalkeeping is great over there, but I think being in my homeland and being back Stateside, I’ll be able to feel more comfortable and be able to strive hopefully."
Onstad was a three-time MLS Cup champion and twice named the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Since his retirement as a player following the 2011 season, Onstad has worked with various goalkeepers, including helping to develop D.C. United’s Bill Hamid.
It takes the interest of two in order to make a relationship work and Crew SC had interest in Steffen as well. Obviously Berhalter saw something when he filed the Discovery claim in 2015, but what?
"Potential," Berhalter answered. "You’re talking about a guy that was highly sought after in college, went over to Europe, played at a high level in Europe with a good club known for developing goalkeepers and known for developing players and we had the chance upon learning he was coming back to acquire him and it made sense. I think it made sense for the club, for the future of the club."
The Black & Gold aren’t looking for immediate help in goal with starter Steve Clark having played every MLS minute over the last three years and backup Brad Stuver proving his worth in U.S. Open Cup and friendly play. But when third-string keeper Matt Pacifici was put on the season-ending injury list, it opened the door for Steffen to walk through.
Now it’s about fit for Steffen. Under Berhalter, the Black & Gold ask a lot of the club’s goalkeepers, both as shot stoppers and a part of the team’s possession-based style.
Steffen has demonstrated his ability to keep the ball out of the net during his time at both Maryland and Freiburg, but can he help Columbus keep the ball?
"I think he’s got a good pass, a good range on his passing," Berhalter said. "However we expect that to need development. In Germany I know his team plays like that, but even having said that, we’re still going to have to work on it."
The young goalkeeper said he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet due to his time in Germany where every training session began with technical work, regardless of position.
While he is the newest shiny toy in the Crew SC playhouse, don’t expect a debut too soon. Clark and Stuver are established in their spots and Berhalter isn’t looking to replace either right away.
With that said, the Black & Gold have acquired a talented prospect for the future that will be given every chance to compete now.
"I think we’re fortunate enough to be in a situation where we can bring him along in a good way," Berhalter said. "We’re not forced to play him from day one, we have two good goalies now. He’s going to be a great compliment to our goalkeeper core and he’s going to be a guy that’s going to develop. We fully expect the goalkeeper position to be highly competitive moving forward."