Columbus Crew SC had something special in Zack Steffen. A young, talented American goalkeeper that set the Crew’s shutout streak record and redefined how to win penalty kick shootouts.
For a team with a history of great goalkeepers, the Black & Gold found their next great one. But like with most great players in Major League Soccer, Steffen wasn’t going to stick around forever. When Manchester City came calling, and was willing to spend nearly $10 million to acquire the player, Steffen and the Crew had to say yes.
This led to the next problem, Columbus needed to find a new goalkeeper. While it was former head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter who agreed to sell Steffen, it was Caleb Porter, who took over as head coach when Berhalter took the U.S. Men’s National Team job prior to 2019, and new general manager Tim Bezbatchenko that had to find a replacement last summer.
And in early July of 2019, in stepped Eloy Room. Fresh off a run to the Gold Cup quarterfinals with Curaçao where he allowed only three goals in four matches, including just a 1-0 defeat to Berhalter’s U.S. team, Room had a bit of a following. The Crew, as it turned out, had been tracking the goalkeeper, along with others, prior to the tournament, but the Gold Cup run helped solidify that he was the player to replace Steffen.
Porter and Bezbatchenko knew what they were looking for. They needed a goalkeeper who was good with his feet in order to help the Black & Gold build from the back, but one that could also make the big save.
“There’s been a movement with goalkeepers and central defenders where you’re prioritizing their ability to start attacks and play through them in the build-up,” Porter said recently. “But, for me, you can’t prioritize that over defending and the shot-stopping... It’s about the balance.”
With Room, Columbus found that balance.
Joining a team that was just beginning to find itself after the coaching change, Room was a step in the right direction. At 30, he was already a veteran who could help lead the backline and clean up what was a decent, but inconsistent Black & Gold defense.
In his first two starts, the Crew won both games. It was five outings with Columbus before Room first tasted defeat and only did so once more in his 12 games in 2019. But it wasn’t until Game 11, the second-to-last match of the year, where Room got his first shutout as the goalkeeper for Columbus.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Room has further demonstrated his fit for the Crew. In seven games played this year, the goalkeeper has six clean sheets. And while some of that credit goes to the group in front of him, which has only allowed two goals all year and conceded just once in Andrew Tarbell’s three games deputizing while Room was hurt, the Curaçao goalkeeper has come up big when called upon.
When asking teammates about Room lately, they all point to one save in particular. In the 53rd minute against FC Cincinnati on the road two weeks ago, Room had to make an extremely quick reflex save to preserve the 0-0 draw after a Siem de Jong free kick was unintentionally deflected on frame by teammate Harrison Afful.
“It was just a reaction,” Room responded when asked about the play. “I was a little bit aware that something can happen on these free kicks because I know De Jong, he’s always up to something. He’s a smart player. So this ball, I, a little bit, expected it but I had to react quick because Harry touched it with his left leg. So it was just a reaction. Luckily I can reach for the ball.”
Added Crew midfielder Fatai Alashe: “I know the save he made in Cincinnati late in the game off one of their set pieces was crazy. I was watching and I was in shock that he saved it. Little moments like that make a big difference.”
Saves such as this are a major reason the Black & Gold acquired Room, but not the only reason. His ability to play with the ball at his feet was also a “massive” factor, according to Porter.
Room grew up playing soccer in the streets in the Netherlands. In these type of games, players don’t just stand in the goal and wait for the ball to come their way. Players want to show off and to do that, they have to get on the ball.
When Room played competitively, he wasn’t always in goal either, playing as a striker or on the wing. It wasn’t until later in his playing career that he stepped in front of the net full time, meaning he had the foot skills to play as a field player.
“I think both things together. It’s really important for goalkeepers in Holland. If you see the best league, almost all the goalkeepers are good with their feet,” Room said. “So it’s just the way of playing we’re used to and I think we’re confident with our feet and I think it helps also that I was a field player before. So it’s a combination of a couple of things.”
For Porter, this was the right recipe for success when it came to finding a goalkeeper.
“We need our goalkeeper to be able to make saves and be good with the ball,” he said.
When a player like Steffen leaves a team, it’s not always easy to find a replacement; top goalkeepers don’t just grow on trees. For the Crew, it wasn’t just about finding a player who can make big saves or can pass the ball out of the back, it was a mix of both abilities.
In Room, the Black & Gold found what they were looking for and the results — top of the MLS standings with a historically good defensive record in 2020 — speak for themselves.
“I think he’s just the perfect fit for us,” Porter said of Room, “because he’s good with his feet, he’s smart positionally, he’s very calm, has a great presence and is a good leader. Because of the way we play, he’s not going to have a ton to do. He just needs to do it one or two moments a game and then not throw the ball in our goal and I think that’s a big thing. Just make one or two saves and be a system guy for us and don’t make big mistakes. And that’s why he’s a good fit for us.”