Big games are usually the perfect stage for the birth of big heroes. That was the case for goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who led Columbus Crew SC to a dramatic PK win over Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference knockout round on Thursday.
The second-youngest player on the Black & Gold roster, the 22-year-old goalkeeper was instrumental as the team advanced to the semifinals of the MLS Cup playoffs and was celebrated by his teammates with the chant of “Legend” in the locker room postgame.
The match against Atlanta was considered by Steffen the biggest game of his career. In front of over 67,000 fans, the shot stopper held the home team to its first-ever scoreless match at the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they scored 26 goals in eight matches.
“The guys in front of me played really well and they battled for 120 minutes, so I had to keep us in the game,” the goalkeeper said. “I had to step up just like they’ve step up. It was a fun night. The stadium was amazing, the crowd was amazing and the atmosphere was outstanding. It was by far the most fun game I’ve ever played.”
Steffen’s performance in the first playoff match of his career was the outcome of the progress he has made through the season. The Coatesville, PA native started the year competing for the starting spot with Brad Stuver and has quickly become a cornerstone in the team’s lineup.
“I’ll give a lot of props to the guys in front of me and to the coaching staff giving me a lot of confidence this year,” Steffen added. “With the 34 games I’ve played, there comes a lot of experience from these games in a lot of different situations.”
One of Steffen’s most impressive skills has been his efficient performance in penalty kicks. The goalkeeper saved three of the last five PKs shot against Columbus’ goal, plus two against Atlanta United in the shootout that took the team to the semifinals.
“He’s athletic, he’s got good reach, good wingspan, he’s got a good first step and I think he has good intuition of reading the opponent,” head coach Gregg Berhalter noted. “That’s the key to it. Some of the saves had nothing to do with preparation. The Gonzalez Pirez one was his instinct. And that’s something you can’t teach”.
what a magical night. this team is special.. grateful to be part of it. stoked to be able to bring it back to Columbus!! see y’all tuesday✊— Zack Steffen (@zackstef_23) October 27, 2017
Steffen also impresses by his calm and composure, especially in the moments when its needed the most.
That was the case Thursday night, where he managed to show a strong attitude and get two important saves in the penalty stage.
“I just got to breathe in those moments,” he told Massive Report. “The nerves are definitely high and I just tell myself to breathe to just stay calm and keep the poise and just believe. Mentality is very big for a goalkeeper and I’ve noticed that throughout the PKs and in other situations this year”.
The goalkeeper’s intuition also played a huge factor on his saves as he picked the right side in each of the Atlanta’s four penalties. He also made the unusual decision of staying in the center of the goal to stop Gonzalez Pirez’s shot.
“You just read their hips and when you pick a side you go all out”, Steffen finished. “You can’t really hesitate. You have a 33 percent chance if stay in the middle. You got to pick a side and stick with it. I’ve never stood in the middle before and it just worked out”.