It was unclear who would strap on the gloves for Columbus Crew SC heading into the 2017 campaign. Between Zack Steffen and Brad Stuver, there was no sure front runner before the Carolina Challenge Cup preseason tournament.
Stuver finished the end of the 2016 season in place of former goalkeeper Steve Clark, but Steffen’s touted raw ability demanded he get a chance before league play began.
Following a strong performance in South Carolina, head coach Gregg Berhalter found his guy to kickoff 2017, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Steffen has started each Major League Soccer game for Crew SC. The only match he has not featured was the non-league U.S. Open Cup match loss to FC Cincinnati.
While the Black & Gold are tied for third in MLS for most goals conceded (32), there’s little question regarding optimism surrounding the young keeper’s continued development.
Let’s take a look at a few numbers.
For MLS goalkeepers, Steffen is tied for first in minutes played with 1,800 (20 full games). He is middle of the pack in clean sheets with five. The 22 year old has faced the third most shots (92) thus far and is sixth in saves with 59, per mlssoccer.com.
An interesting stat is that he’s tied for first among keepers with yellow cards (3). One of those was given following a foul on Jozy Altidore in an early-season match with Toronto FC. The U.S. forward then stepped to the penalty spot as Steffen faced his first MLS penalty kick. The Crew SC keeper made the save.
For someone that is more or less a rookie in MLS, the first half of the season has demonstrated Berhalter’s trust in the young player. Unfortunately, for Steffen, 32 goals conceded looks rough at a glance, but there are a handful of reasons at to why this number stands.
For one, the Columbus backline has been in constant flux. Building a steady understanding with a center back duo is nearly impossible given the number of combinations that have played in front of him (all while the wing backs are subject to just as much altering).
Further, considering defense has been a visible weakness in recent seasons, and the system in place is already highly attacking, Steffen is naturally left vulnerable to any team capable of leading a halfway decent counterattack.
Last, and by no means least, playing out of the back is risky. A high-pressing opponent can force the defense into cheap, careless turnovers that lead to quick goals, and now nearly every opponent deploys this tactic against Crew SC.
Because of this, Berhalter has stated he needs a goalkeeper who can come up big in important moments. Clark made the saves when needed in his three seasons and, in his first year as the Black & Gold starter, Steffen has demonstrated he has the knack to come up big when needed as well.
Apart from a few, short strong runs from other players within the backline, Steffen has been the only constant for the Black & Gold defense.
All things considered, Zack Steffen has earned the starting spot. He’s great at reading set piece shots, his extension and diving covers post to post, long shots are almost a non-factor against him, he’s a vocal leader, his reflexes are strong, he’s good with his feet and he’s not afraid to charge into the fray.
So far, it’s only his decision making that sometimes appears shaky, but that is typically natural for a young goalkeeper. Better reading of opposition counterattacking should be prioritized as he continues to develop over the second half of the year.
First half grade: B