If you haven’t heard by now, Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen is a wanted man. According to a report from MLSSoccer.com’s Sam Stejskal, English Championship club Bristol City made a near $4 million offer to Major League Soccer and the Black & Gold for the 23 year old. Since then, reports have come out that the number sits at $3.9 million.
It’s no surprise Steffen is attracting interest from European clubs. Even at a young age, the goalkeeper spent time with German side SC Freiburg, starting for the club’s second team and working as their third-string goalkeeper before his return to the United States and Crew SC. In his nearly two years in MLS, Steffen has become Columbus’ starting goalkeeper, been a main ingredient on a playoff run to a conference final, established himself as a future U.S. National Team player and, this year, become one of the best goalkeepers in the league.
But the time is not right for Steffen to make the move. Why you ask? There are a number of reasons.
Let’s start with a simple one. Crew SC is currently trying to make another run to the MLS Cup Final and Steffen is a key ingredient in that. In the 16 games Steffen has started for the Black & Gold in 2018, Columbus has conceded just 1.06 goals per game. In the five games Steffen has missed, Crew SC has allowed 1.6 goals per game.
While those numbers may not seem that far off, if you extrapolate that over the course of a 34-game MLS season, Steffen would allow just over 38 goals, while his replacement — so far this year it has been Jon Kempin — would concede more than 54. This is not to say Kempin couldn’t improve his numbers if he became the starter, but there’s a reason why teams are attempting to buy Steffen and the stats show it.
If the Black & Gold plan to continue the team’s push for the playoffs, Steffen is a key piece. The goalkeeper made eight saves to shutout the high-scoring Atlanta United on the road in the knockout round last year, then made two more penalty kick saves in the shootout. He also came up big for his team in the first leg against New York City FC and in both games against Toronto FC.
While some would argue that you take the money when it’s there — as it is nearly inevitable that Steffen will move on to bigger and better things — it’s likely these offers aren’t going anywhere, and possibly will only increase. Steffen is a very young goalkeeper, so teams like Bristol City are making a long-term investment, not just buying a keeper for the 2018-19 season.
While we’re on the topic of money, let’s look at how this deal shapes up. Let’s take the report that Bristol City is offering $3.9 million for Steffen as fact for this example. Is that really all he’s worth? While this is a rather drastic comparison, Liverpool of the English Premier League just paid $86.85 million to Roma for Brazilian goalkeeper Allison. Steffen is certainly no Allison, who has 31 caps for his country at 25 years old, but is he less than five percent of his Brazilian counterpart?
Also, with the way MLS transfer rules work, Crew SC would only keep 75 percent of the transfer fee for Steffen, or in this case $2.9 million. Of that, head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter can use roughly $750,000 as General Allocation Money and the remaining money can be used for investment in the club (towards a Designated Player or to improve training facilities, for example).
Unless Berhalter and his staff believe Kempin is the present and second-year goalkeeper Logan Ketterer or rookie Ben Lundgaard are the future of the club, that would mean going out and signing another keeper in the near future. It would also mean that the rest money for the club would have to actually be reinvested, which — given the current possibility of relocation — seems unlikely.
Finally, there’s the small issue of the United Kingdom work permit that would be required for Steffen to play in England. There are a number of rules that a player from outside Europe must meet in order to work in the U.K. and, when it comes to soccer, the most important is competitive caps for that player’s country in a given year. Steffen has played for the U.S. senior national team three times, but none of those have been competitive. He could go through an appeal process to get a work permit, but the odds are not in Steffen’s favor.
Crew SC fans should get used to the idea that Zack Steffen is not long for their team. He has quickly proven to be one of the best young American goalkeepers and if it’s not Bristol City this transfer window, it will be another club. But the Black & Gold should wait to sell on Steffen. Make this push for the playoffs this season and see if he can’t help lead you to the MLS Cup. Then, during the winter transfer window, teams will come back, as Steffen’s value is not going to decline over the next six months.
If the game is about maximizing value, keeping Steffen and selling him during the MLS offseason, even though that’s halfway through the European schedule, would get the most out of him for the club, still allow for a relatively big fee — possibly even higher — and let Berhalter and his staff search for the next Crew SC goalkeeper.
Be smart. Don’t sell Steffen. Yet.