Columbus coach Caleb Porter confirmed Thursday that Steffen hasn’t trained this week and won’t be making the trip because of an injury that’s also keeping him out of US men’s national team camp.
“It’s a minor injury,” Porter said. “We’re optimistic he’ll be back in training next week and ready to go. We didn’t want this thing to become a mountain out of a molehill. It’s just a bit of a slight MCL tweak that comes from kicking a piece of turf.”
That injury opens the door for the first look at the post-Steffen era of the Crew, which will begin this summer when the breakout star completes his transfer to English Premier League giants Manchester City in a deal that was agreed upon this offseason.
The presumed Steffen replacement this weekend will be Joe Bendik, who was signed in December partially as a contingency plan for Steffen’s transfer. Bendik has been the backup goalkeeper in each of the first three games of the season, and has 167 MLS starts under his belt.
Jon Kempin, who backed up Steffen and started five games for the Crew last season, is also in the mix. And though Porter said he knows who will be starting this weekend, he declined to share with the media.
Crew president Tim Bezbatchenko said that combination of Bendik and Kempin means the Columbus front office may not necessarily feel the need to make a big move to replace Steffen.
“We knew we were going to be losing Zack this summer, so we felt we needed to make a signing in the offseason and we felt like we got a great find in Joe Bendik,” he said. “Between Joe and Jon Kempin, and then Zack, we think we have a very strong goalkeeping group for obviously the first half of the season. And then after we lose Zack, we feel like we have not only two capable goalkeepers, but they’ve been proven starters at various times.”
For assistant coach and former MLS goalkeeper Matt Reis, that dynamic has created an incentive for intense training sessions among the team’s ‘keepers, and said having a trio of experienced players makes the team stronger.
“Since the start of preseason there’s been a good healthy battle between Jon and Joe,” he said. “They’ve both played, and that’s the other unique thing about our goalkeeper group: all three have played games in MLS. You look at our opponent this weekend, the Union, and when they lose their starter, the next two guys don’t have that. I think that’s great for our situation.”
For Bendik, that means that he’s hungry for a chance, but simply focused on “working each day.” He said he’s not thinking too much about trying to earn the Steffen-replacement role, a decision that’s out of his control.
“The rest will take care of itself,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not in a position to make those decisions. So what I can do is to work hard and continue to work on myself and work with my teammates.”
He did say, however, that the opportunity, along with the reputation of the Crew organization, helped bring him to Columbus.
“Nothing is set in stone; you have to continue to work at yourself and continue to work the guys around you,” he said. “In this situation, it’s a little bit unique, and I saw…such a well-oiled machine. I loved watching Columbus from afar – the way they play and the way their players work hard. So it all affects where you’re going to go.”
At this stage, Porter isn’t willing to make any predictions or commitments, and even said this weekend’s choice may not even be a guarantee that one of Bendik or Kempin is leading the race.
“The door isn’t even closed on the other guy who doesn’t start,” he said. “We always knew there was going to be a little bit of an audition for half the season with Jon and Joe based on national-team duty and a couple games where they would get a run. And obviously in training we’re evaluating them, but with a goalkeeper, it’s about the game.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Porter is ruling out a summer addition.
“I don’t want to look ahead or make any decisions until I have a body of work to go on,” he said. “So I think we’re ready for both ways. We would love to promote from within because that’s much easier. But at the same time, of course we’re planning in case we decide to go another direction.”
Bezbatchenko agreed, and said chances like Saturday will serve as a kind of audition for the existing goalkeeper group.
“Just like any position on the field…we prefer to sort of hire within,” he said. “So opportunities like this weekend are a chance for a goalkeeper to step in, just like other players who are stepping in, to prove that they should be the starter.”