“And Zack Steffen has had another Wembley nightmare! History horribly repeating itself for the American goalkeeper!”
Jon Champion’s call for ESPN seared the ears of Manchester City supporters watching in horror as their team fell behind 2-0 (and eventually lost 3-2) to Liverpool in last Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal on Steffen’s error at the feet of Sadio Mane. And it was almost as painful for US men’s national team fans.
Barely six months out from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the USMNT’s goalkeeping situation is uncomfortably unsettled. Though it’s hardly all to do with Saturday’s proceedings in London, Steffen’s struggles drove home the central point in front of a massive global audience: The two ‘keepers who anchored the United States’ successful Concacaf Octagonal qualification campaign have played precious little soccer over the past few months, and might be playing even less in the final countdown to the World Cup itself.
“My first reaction was that it's just a goalkeeper who just looks rusty, who just looks like he's not up to the speed of play at the moment,” retired USMNT great Kasey Keller said on Monday’s edition of ESPN’s Futbol Americas. “It is one of the most difficult things to do as a goalkeeper, is to be ready at a moment's notice even though you're not playing week in and week out.
“Unfortunately for Zack, he just hasn't been able to perform at the level that I think we know he can play at, that obviously Pep Guardiola knows he can play at. But he's just not consistently doing it. And that's a worrying sign for Gregg Berhalter and the men's national team.”
In earning a move from the Columbus Crew to the reigning English champions and ensconcing himself as City’s No. 2 behind Brazilian international Ederson, Steffen has reached elevated club territory rarely ever trodden by US players. His minutes remain limited, however: He’s played just one Premier League match this season, and nine games across all competitions.
“It's reactionary this week, because of the mishap, right?” noted Tony Meola, who started for the USMNT at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and was a reserve in 2002. “We all react: ‘Oh, it's terrible.’ It's a part of his game that he has to improve on. And everyone keeps telling me that he's confident with his feet. And then I've said time and time again, I know people hate hearing it: He’s confident with his feet, but is he good with his feet? There's a big difference. And it showed this weekend.”
Meola, though, is less worried about Steffen’s ball-handling error than how it seemed to haunt him, as soon after he allowed Mane to beat him at the near post with what proved to be the game-winner.
“I looked at how he reacted,” he said. “I thought Zack struggled in his response to that and that for me is a little more concerning.”
Mission: Find playing time
Meanwhile, Matt Turner, who played in more Octagonal games than Steffen did and earned 13 total caps in 2021 despite having never appeared for the US at any level before the start of that year, has yet to play for the New England Revolution in 2022 due to a foot injury. Come summer, he’ll complete his transfer to Arsenal, where he too faces a stiff fight for any sort of minutes and is projected to be the backup to England’s Aaron Ramsdale – and Germany's Bernd Leno, while expected to move elsewhere in search of regular action, remains on their roster as well.
For now at least, it’s a stark contrast to many of the USMNT’s past World Cups.
Tim Howard was a force in goal during the 2010 and 2014 editions, carrying over his strong and steady displays as Everton’s No. 1 in the previous club campaigns. Kasey Keller was a regular starter for Leicester City leading up to the 1998 World Cup, and again for Borussia Mönchengladbach before the 2006 tournament. Brad Friedel was arguably in the form of his life for Blackburn Rovers before backstopping the Yanks’ run to the quarterfinals at Korea/Japan 2002, where he saved two penalty kicks and was dubbed “The Human Wall.”
It’s “crucial” that national team ‘keepers are playing regularly, and well, at the club level before a big tournament, Friedel told MLSsoccer.com this week. He believes both Steffen and Turner simply have to find a way to log regular minutes in the coming months, whether it be displacing their competitors at Man City and Arsenal or seeking out loan moves elsewhere.
As elite as the everyday training environments are at clubs of that stature, there’s simply no substitute for the sharpness and rhythm of starting matches week in, week out. Right until the twilight of his career, Friedel’s mentality was always to vie for the starter’s role, and he sees it as necessary that whoever starts for the USMNT in Qatar do the same.
“I never wanted to sign a contract where I was slated to be the No. 2 or the No. 3,” said Friedel, who currently works as a player agent but gave Turner his first MLS starts during his stint in charge of the Revs from November 2017 to May 2019. “At least not until I was 42, 43 years old and by that time I was also working on my coaching badges.”
“Now he's really gone a couple of years, right in the peak of his career, where he hasn't been playing regularly,” he said of Steffen. “And at some point Zack has to make a decision: Am I here for the money or am I here to play games? And the money will follow if I play games. And it's a tough decision.”
Meola points to the long history shared by Berhalter and Steffen, who worked together in Columbus before the USMNT, as both a key factor and a double-edged sword here.
“That's his guy, and every coach has their guy. Whether you like Matt Turner, or thought he was going to be the guy, I always thought that Zack Steffen was going to be the guy,” he said. “Every time he's been healthy, he's been the guy for Gregg and I understand that part of it. It's really important for a manager to feel trust in the guy that they use, and I didn't think that was going to change. But we're going to the World Cup. You play the guy who you think is best suited to play.”
This year’s unprecedented autumn World Cup means that the USMNT will only have a handful of matches to use as warm-ups in the ensuing months – and also that arranging and maximizing pre-Qatar loan moves might be tricky for Steffen, Turner or any other players, for that matter. European clubs will only play for a couple of months before pausing in mid-November, compared to the longer winter/spring phase they might have if making a January move before a summer tournament.
“The hard part is when you don't have the opportunity to be given five, six, seven games in a row. But that's life as a goalkeeper. You have to then prove yourself,” noted Keller, who played for six clubs in England, Spain and Germany before returning home to star for the Seattle Sounders at the start of their MLS existence.
“[Turner] will probably go to Arsenal as a number two, you're only going to have from August until November to win that starting spot. That's a real tough task.”
To further complicate matters for Berhalter, Ethan Horvath, who saw action during the Yanks’ Concacaf Nations League campaign, has fallen down the pecking order at Nottingham Forest. Longtime USMNTer Brad Guzan could have provided a proven, reliable pair of hands but the veteran just ruptured his Achilles tendon during Atlanta United’s match last weekend and will be out for months to come.
NYCFC’s Sean Johnson has been called into many of Berhalter’s camps over the past year or two, but hasn’t appeared in a match since a friendly at the end of the 2020 January camp. Chicago Fire FC prodigy Gaga Slonina has rocketed into the senior player pool this year but remains just 17 years of age, and tossed another wrench into the works by posing with a Poland jersey this week as the federation of his parents’ homeland has made clear their desire to recruit the dual-national to their camp.
Friedel suggested that MLS-based ‘keepers on the fringe of the USMNT picture like D.C. United’s Bill Hamid may get another look, while others have pointed to the consistency of Seattle’s Stefan Frei, though neither seem to have figured much under Berhalter.
“It's such a tough question,” said Meola. “At this stage, what can you possibly do with a June window, where you're going to have, now we know [a friendly with] Morocco is going to be on June 1, [before CNL games vs.] Grenada and El Salvador? And then you're literally taking your guys to the World Cup.
“I get the sense that we're going to look at the goalkeeping position this time around the same way we're going to look at the striker’s position. It's the guy that's in form, whoever’s playing the best. That's where we're at right now.”
Unless some of the protagonists make major moves, this picture could well stay hazy right up until the last minute.
“What I see right now is I really see a situation where that decision isn't going to be made until the three games, friendlies, leading up to the World Cup,” said Keller, “because there's a good chance that you have a group of guys that aren't playing.”
Fans aren’t the only ones fretting about that.
“For the first time in a long time that I can remember, this is a position of concern,” said Meola.
“We don't have – we're not even close right now – to a Brad Friedel, a Kasey Keller, or a Tim Howard. We're not close right now to that. And I so want to be close and I so want to be past – surpassing those guys’ skill level,” he added. “We're just not there right now. And I don't know that we're going to get there. That doesn't mean we can't compete. But we're not at the point where we're going to feel that confident in goal.”