In men’s soccer, unlike other major American sports, the pinnacle does not exist in the United States. If a player wants to be the best, he goes to play in one of the top leagues in Europe. Columbus Crew SC’s Zack Steffen knew long ago he was good enough to be a top American goalkeeper and, if he wanted to see out his true potential, Europe was going to be his destination.
First, though, came college. This was a time in life Stephanie and Derek, Steffen’s mother and stepfather, believed was important for their son to experience. A great two years at Maryland, a number of accolades and a national championship game appearance was all Steffen needed before deciding the time was right to cross the pond.
Germany Bundesliga side SC Freiburg was one of several teams keeping tabs on Steffen. It was there the goalkeeper began his professional career.
“I was 19 when I went over there,” Steffen told Massive Report this week, “and my mindset when I went over there was to pretty much to go over there, work hard and try it out.”
Try it out he did. Steffen made 14 appearances for Freiburg’s second team while playing in Germany for just over a year and a half. The goalkeeper dealt with injuries that kept him from regularly playing the sport he loved, but he also was an American college-aged kid alone in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language and had few friends.
Growing up, Steffen’s parents were at nearly every game he played. In college too. The University of Maryland is about a two-hour drive from the Steffen’s home, so it was easy for his whole family — Zack is the oldest of five children — to make the drive. Even the away games were mostly doable.
“It was an emotional roller coaster for us,” Stephanie recalled of her son’s time at Freiburg. “I remember he didn’t get WiFi for several months after he was over there, so it was a challenge for us to even communicate with him regularly. It’s just a very different way of doing things over there.”
A lack of communication between Steffen and his family was “tough,” according to both Zack and Stephanie. In the past, nearly every time he stepped on the pitch he had the support of his family. In Germany, Steffen wasn’t playing regularly and went months without regular communication back home.
The difference weighed heavily on Zack.
In July of 2016, Steffen called his parents and said he was coming home. He was unhappy. Not just with living in Germany but with soccer in general. For the first time in his life, the sport was not something he loved.
Looking back, Steffen and his family don’t view his time in Germany as a failure because of the knowledge Zack gained. It made the goalkeeper aware that maybe Europe, while the ultimate goal, wasn’t right for him at the time.
“He and our family have a lot of lessons that we learned from the time he was there,” Stephanie said. “And I give him a lot of credit for gutting it out for as long as he did because I know it was a real challenging time for him.”
Coming back from Freiburg allowed Steffen to join the Crew and work under head coach Gregg Berhalter and goalkeeper coach Pat Onstad. Steffen knew being back in the United States and close to home was right for him at that time. He was 22. Europe could wait.
“When I decided to come back and I knew I was coming back, my mindset was just to come back here and find my happiness and my passion for soccer again,” he said.
Finding that happiness was most important for Steffen. There was no doubt in his or his family’s mind that he had the ability to play goalkeeper at the highest level. But, as Steffen’s agent kept telling the family, “if the off the field part of his life isn’t good, then the on the field part is not going to be good either.”
But the return to the states and the move to Columbus wasn’t a walk in the park, at least not at first.
The Crew had an established starting goalkeeper in Steve Clark, who took the team to the MLS Cup Final the year prior to Steffen’s arrival, and Zack wasn’t promised anything upon signing with the team. While he was introduced alongside new starting defender Nico Naess, Steffen was merely third on the depth chart.
Before he stepped on the field at MAPFRE Stadium, Steffen went on loan to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, an idea that did not initially thrill him. As he attempted to do in Germany, Steffen made the best of his time in Pittsburgh, making nine appearances for the Riverhounds in 2016. It wasn’t ideal playing at the USL level but at least the goalkeeper was playing.
Clark did not return to the Crew following Steffen’s first season, meaning for the first time in his professional career, the goalkeeper entered 2017 competing for a starting first team spot.
Less than two weeks before the start of the year, Berhalter was unsure who his top goalkeeper would be. This was not because Steffen and Brad Stuver lit up preseason, but rather that neither ‘keeper showed enough to seize the job.
It wasn’t until the final phase of the preseason at the Carolina Challenge Cup that Steffen finally showed the promise that would lead him to success.
“We struggled. I struggled,” Steffen remembered of that 2017 preseason. “It was tough. But I want to say it clicked when we were in Charleston and on Friday night Gregg called me to his room and we just had a five-minute conversation and he just told me that the coaching staff and the players have confidence in me and they trust me and they just want me to go out there and play. When I heard that, I had a really good tournament in Charleston and I think it just clicked there and the confidence just kept growing.”
Steffen’s time with the Crew was exactly what the young goalkeeper needed. He won the starting job over Stuver and never relinquished it, gaining confidence and falling back in love with the sport. He started all 34 regular season games for the Black & Gold in 2017, recording nine shutouts, and led his team back to the MLS Cup playoffs after a one-year hiatus.
It was in the 2017 postseason where Steffen’s name became known outside of Columbus. In the knockout round, the Crew was a massive underdog to expansion giants Atlanta United on the road. With the possibility of relocation hovering over the Black & Gold franchise, the team banded together, looking to give some hope to the city and the supporters.
“It just felt really special. The whole ‘Save The Crew’ movement happened and it just felt really special,” Steffen remembered. “When you’re playing for more than yourself, it’s so much more meaningful... That gave us extra confidence to go down there and perform.”
Perform the Crew did, holding an Atlanta side that scored 70 goals during the 2017 regular season scoreless for 90 minutes, plus 30 minutes of extra time. Through 120 minutes Steffen played the hero, recording eight saves to deny the likes of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and United’s other potent attackers.
But the heroics weren’t finished in the run of play. With no goals from either side, the match went to penalty kicks and Steffen stood on his head once again, stopping two of Atlanta’s spot kick attempts as Columbus played David to United’s Goliath, advancing 3-1 in the shootout.
While the Black & Gold’s playoff run ended in a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat at Toronto FC in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final, Steffen’s name was on the map. Most importantly, Steffen was happy. He was playing regularly and his family was once again able to support him from the stands.
“The Atlanta game, I flew with our 12-year-old son and my brother flew in from Maine, my sister flew in from Chicago,” Stephanie told Massive Report. “So during that penalty shootout, we were just linked arm-in-arm with the 25 other Crew supporters at the opposite end of the stadium.”
Happiness led Steffen to perform at the level he knew he could.
In January of 2018, Steffen made his debut for the United States National Team in a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was named to the Crew’s leadership council, by far the youngest player on the council, heading into his second full season with the club.
Steffen followed his first full year as a starter with an even better campaign, playing in 29 games, while also getting more national team caps, and recording 10 shutouts, tied for second-best in team history.
With that success came interest from abroad and the prospect of returning to Europe became very real.
“For a lot of years, I think Zack has gotten a lot of attention. He’s been called the next Tim Howard forever,” Stephanie said. “And I don’t think any of us paid any attention to that because I don’t think Zack wants those comparisons. What we’ve always thought is as long as he stays (physically and mentally) healthy that the sky’s the limit.”
After Steffen’s time with Freiburg, the limitations of his play seemed very real. Despite success in college and at the youth national team level, he wasn’t getting the opportunity he hoped for. A return to the U.S. and a move to the Crew changed all of that.
Multiple teams from abroad were interested in Steffen during the 2018 season. He was playing at the top of his game, he was the best goalkeeper in MLS and was the starter for the U.S. National Team. The only questions remaining were where and when Steffen would return to Europe.
In the fall of 2018, as Steffen completed his MLS Goalkeeper of the Year campaign, Manchester City expressed interest. Steffen knew he was good but he did not expect to hear from the newly crowned English Premier League champions.
“My agent called me and said they were looking and I was in awe,” he said. “I was like, ‘What?’ It’s crazy.”
It didn’t take long for a deal to get done. Following the season, the Crew agreed to a transfer fee — the largest in MLS history for a goalkeeper — and by early December, Steffen signed his contract with Manchester City. But he wasn’t done in Columbus yet. As part of the deal, Steffen would not move to the English giants until July, meaning the goalkeeper had half a season left with the Crew.
The last few months have flown by for Steffen. Between recording four shutouts in his first five games of 2019 to playing with the national team, the time has gone quickly since the Crew announced his departure.
For Zack, it’s almost too fast.
“I’m trying to live in the moment and enjoy this last week that I have because I know it’s going to go fast,” Steffen told Massive Report this week. “I know Gold Cup’s going to go fast and that’s life these days... It’s just weird that it’s here.”
On Saturday, Steffen will play his final game for the Crew before leaving for international duty, stepping onto the MAPFRE Stadium pitch for the final time as a Black & Gold player. It will be his last chance to sit in the locker room with his teammates, his brothers, and one final goodbye to the Nordecke and all those in Columbus that supported him these last few years.
When Steffen came to Columbus, it was a fresh start for a young goalkeeper who desperately needed it. It was a chance to not only return home but find his passion for the sport of soccer once again. He managed that with the Black & Gold.
As he sat reflecting on his Crew career on Wednesday and thinking about his final game, one in which his family will once again be in attendance, Steffen got emotional for the first time in a while. He knows there will be tears on Saturday but this time they will be tears of happiness.
Five years ago, Steffen’s family put a 19-year-old kid on a plane to Germany to begin his professional soccer career. That endeavor did not go as planned. This time, when Stephanie and company say goodbye to Zack, they know he is in a much different headspace and that his time with the Crew prepared him for success in Europe.
“Columbus has been amazing,” he said. “It’s like home. It’s going to be sad. This is a special place and it’s been good to me... But I’m also excited. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”