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Why is Zack Steffen ready for Manchester City? Because Crew SC made him ready

The Black & Gold turned Steffen into the MLS’s most desirable goalkeeper in just two and a half years.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

According to Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen, he learned just a few weeks ago of his upcoming move to Manchester City that was announced on Tuesday. That may have been when he officially found out he was moving to the Blue side of Manchester, but the possibility was there earlier than that.

“It started just after the summer,” Black & Gold interim general manager and goalkeeper coach said Pat Onstad said. “A goalkeeper scout came in and stayed with us for a few days in the summer and we had long discussions and watched training up close. He got to meet Zack.”

Manchester City’s interest in Steffen goes back a while. Gregg Berhalter, who was Crew SC’s sporting director and head coach before taking over the U.S. Men’s National Team in early December, was the one who made the deal happen. His relationship with City and head coach Pep Guardiola was part of the reason there was a move to be made. He was also the one negotiating the deal up until he left, working to get things across the finish line.

City’s interest in Steffen has been there for some time. But why? This is Manchester City we’re talking about, a club that spent $361.54 million during the 2017-18 season, including $45.55 million on current starting goalkeeper Ederson.

The answer starts with Berhalter and the fact that he took much of his playing style from Guardiola. In a possession-based system similar to City’s and Crew SC’s, the goalkeeper has to be good with his feet. Playing at the top level, as Manchester City does in the English Premier League and the Champions League, the team’s goalkeeper typically must be great with his feet.

That is why City paid the amount they did for Ederson and, because of Steffen’s improvement in this department during his two and a half years with the Black & Gold, why they felt a goalkeeper in Columbus make sense for their future.

“They do a really good job at scouting,” Onstad said. “We’re a possession-based team. We try to use the ball to disorganize opponents and that’s exactly what Man City does. What Pep does over there and what Gregg did here is very similar and I think that skill set for Zack and how he can play out of the back, his composure on the ball fits in nicely with what Man City does.

“If you watch their goalkeeper, Ederson, he’s fantastic with the ball at his feet. That’s what Zack will strive to be at that level. But it’s a good fit for Zack, the club of Man City and also it fits in nicely for us as well.”

Being great with your feet is a part of being a Manchester City goalkeeper, but it’s not encompassing. Despite City’s typical dominance in games, the goalkeeper still has to keep the ball out of the net. Through 16 games this year, Ederson has only been required to make 28 saves but those have all been important in recording eight shutouts, tied for second-best in the EPL.

If Steffen is a future City goalkeeper, he will have to be more than just good with his feet. He will have to shine on the biggest soccer league stage in the world. But he has already proven to be up for big challenges.

“He’s always been the type of goalkeeper that rises to the occasion,” Onstad said. “The more pressure, the better he does and so I’m confident that he’ll go over there and be very successful.

“When we played Atlanta for example, against France leading into the World Cup, D.C. United this year in the playoffs, although he would probably say the first one he should have done better with. But he’s always there in the big, bright lights. That’s why I think he’ll be successful.”

In his first opportunity to shine on a national stage for Columbus, Steffen stepped up and recorded eight saves to shutout Atlanta United at home in the MLS Cup playoffs in 2017. He then made two saves in the penalty kick shootout to help Crew SC spring the upset. Just over seven months later, Steffen recorded seven saves for the USMNT against eventual World Cup champions France in a 1-1 draw. In the most recent playoffs, Steffen again stopped two penalty kick attempts, one from Wayne Rooney, to help the Black & Gold advance by D.C. United.

“Atlanta last year was amazing, just because everybody counted us out the week before the game,” Steffen reflected. “Then to go down there and upset Atlanta down in their stadium was amazing. Then to do that same thing in D.C. this year was another magical moment for us.”

When Steffen made the move to Crew SC in July of 2016, he was leaving German side SC Freiburg to return to the United States. The goalkeeper’s first experience in Europe was less than positive but he knew it was his goal to get back to the top leagues at some point.

Steffen didn’t know how quickly it would be or where he would be going, but thanks to the help of Onstad and the Black & Gold coaching staff, he will be a part of the most expensive Crew SC sale in the team history and the most money ever received for a goalkeeper by Major League Soccer.

Even Steffen finds that hard to believe.

“I still haven’t come down from cloud nine,” he said. “It’s very surreal. The more and more I talk about it with my family and close friends, it becomes more and more real. But it’s still crazy. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. It’s really, really crazy.”