Warshaw: Why Zack Steffen to Manchester City is a big deal all around

Zack Steffen kicks the ball

The deal is done. Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen is off to Manchester City on July 9, 2019. The US men’s national team goalkeeper was transferred for a club-record fee and the highest for a goalkeeper in MLS history.

Initial reports two weeks ago said that Steffen would be leaving on January 1, but the deal has been pushed to the summer transfer window, opening July 9.

When asked about it on a conference call Tuesday afternoon, interim Crew GM Pat Onstad said the timing is "beneficial for both clubs" and the player. 

"For Zack and his comfort zone, to wrap his head around it. Now he knows where he’s going, where he’s ending up," Onstad said. "We have something to shoot for in the next six months. And it fits with our team and gives our scouts a target to find a goalkeeper [before Steffen leaves].”   

Earlier in the same conference call, Steffen also alluded to the fact that acquiring a work permit could present an issue, stating, “that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now.” By waiting until the summer, Steffen will have the friendlies again Panama and Costa Rica early in the new year as well as the Concacaf Gold Cup to gain more US national team caps and get himself over the international appearance threshold necessary to attain a work permit.

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Zack Steffen is the reigning Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year | Reuters

When it comes to the transfer fee, Crew SC didn't disclose one, but the club did acknowledge that it is the largest fee for a goalkeeper in league history, surpassing the $4 million that Manchester United paid for Tim Howard in 2003. Paul Tenorio of The Athletic reported the deal to be between $7-10 million, meaning it could come in third among the largest outgoing transfers of any player behind Jozy Altidore and Alphonso Davies.

This is good for Crew SC and Major League Soccer.

What it means for Columbus

That fee is a huge chunk of change (75 percent of the final transfer) to reinvest in the club.

After winning the No. 1 job with the USMNT on the strength of two dominant seasons in MLS — he also won the 2018 Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award — Steffen had his sights on Europe. Crew SC helped Steffen move to one of the biggest clubs in the world, and they got a nice return for him in the process.

Specifically for this current Crew roster, the $5-$7 million they will likely receive could help the team make the jump into the league’s elite — imagine if the current lineup had, say... Tito Villalba on the wing. It would fill in the team’s biggest hole. And while losing Steffen hurts, it’s cheaper to replace a goalkeeper than it is to sign an elite attacker.

In the long term, the money could also go toward improving the academy, which has only produced one major contributor (Wil Trapp) for the club.

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Tim Howard made headlines in 2003 when he was transferred to Manchester United, joining legendary manager Alex Ferguson. | Reuters

What it means for MLS

This Steffen transfer is another data point to use in negotiations, with teams and with players.

In his recent State of the League address, MLS Commissioner Don Garber acknowledged his desire for MLS clubs to be a bigger part of the world market with outgoing transfers. That means getting and/or developing players good enough to transfer and also receiving bids worth accepting.

Moving a player to Man City demonstrates to players around the world that MLS can be an international showcase. And selling a player for $7 million also sets an anchor. Each time MLS clubs transfer a player for a higher price, they can point to that figure in future negotiations.

What it means for Steffen

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Zack Steffen could be competing against Manchester City starting goalkeeper Ederson next summer. | Reuters

Manchester City already have an established No. 1 choice at goalkeeper, Ederson (pictured above). So Steffen will either go on loan or serve as the backup.

Here’s where it gets (more) messy…

It’s still uncertain whether City got Steffen to flip him or use him. Nobody expects Steffen to unseat Ederson. But City don’t mind having large assets in reserve. The second goalkeeper on City’s books, Claudio Bravo, was the starter for Barcelona when City shelled out $17 million for his services (to be the starter at the time, but still…).

When Steffen’s transfer was initially reported, I had assumed he would go on loan. City have made a small business lately out of buying players and flipping them for a profit. It’s been a form of arbitrage, in which City identify undervalued players in the market, purchase their rights, loan them to a club to show them off so the value increases, and sell them for more than they bought them. Recent examples include former NYCFC midfielder Jack Harrison, currently on loan at Leeds United, and Huddersfield midfielder Aaron Mooy, who went on loan to the Premier League side before they bought him.  

But if City planned on sending Steffen on loan elsewhere in Europe, Steffen wouldn’t need a work permit; he could go right now. And Onstad’s line of, “For Zack and his comfort zone, to wrap his head around it. Now he knows where he’s going, where he’s ending up,” makes it sound like City gave Steffen some assurances. So either City plan on keeping him, loaning him elsewhere in Europe, or loaning him to a team that promised him a starting spot in July, but doesn’t need one right now.

What’s best for Steffen’s career? Would staying at City as the backup be good for him? Yes, with a time limit. It’s generally better to play than sit on the bench (99.9 percent of the time), except when the coach is Pep Guardiola (below).

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola guided the team to the 2017-'18 English Premier League title | Reuters

Pep makes his players better; he teaches them new ways to see the game and sets demands that force them to improve. It’s hard to imagine Steffen wouldn’t become a better player while training under Guardiola every day, even if Steffen isn’t getting minutes. He’d get tutelage he couldn’t get anywhere else in the world.

I’d put a max on it, though, at around a year (it’s a somewhat arbitrary number – it just feels right). Once he hits the year mark, he needs to be playing again; it doesn’t help to improve your skills if you never get to use them.

It’s murky waters for Steffen. But there isn’t a route of getting from Columbus to starting for a place like Manchester City without taking risks.