Where were you the night Zack Steffen stood on his head in Atlanta?
For many impartial observers, the goalkeeper’s performance to lift Columbus Crew SC to a stunning Knockout Round road upset of Atlanta United last month was a very cool moment that won’t soon be forgotten.
There were probably a few reasons for that.
For starters, who doesn’t like shootouts and upsets in an elimination game? Then, there’s the whole potential relocation story that broke a week before the start of the postseason. And of course, there’s the excitement about possibly seeing the next big thing.
Is Steffen the goalkeeper of the future of the US national team? Would he have been in the mix, along with a few other young ’keepers, to play in Tuesday’s USMNT friendly draw at Portugal had he not led the Crew into the Eastern Conference Championship vs. Toronto FC? Is he really as good as his monster performance in Atlanta might indicate?
Here’s what we know: Steffen has always been a very highly touted prospect. When he was a teenager and part of the still-developing Philadelphia Union academy, he worked with the Union first-team coaches before deciding to play at the University of Maryland.
Say what you will about the pitfalls of college soccer, but Steffen was really “excited” to play at a school where soccer draws huge crowds and then-Union coach John Hackworth said there was “no rush” to sign him since goalkeepers develop later than their field player counterparts.
What happened next still irks some Union fans as Philly went in a few other directions to fill their goalkeeper needs — some good (Andre Blake), some not-so-good (Rais Mbolhi) — and Steffen decided to fulfill another dream and bolt for Europe after two years with the Terps. He then signed with Columbus midway through the 2016 season, having forged somewhat of a haphazard development path.
But that’s through no fault of his own, really. The bigger point here is that a few different teams along the way, from the Union to the University of Maryland to SC Freiburg to the Crew, have seen serious star quality in Steffen. And just as a reminder, he’s still only 22.
Considering goalkeepers don’t often hit their prime until their 30s, it’s still quite enticing that a 22-year-old is making huge saves deep into the MLS Cup Playoffs. And for many American soccer fans, that’s likely a big reason why they’ll tune into the Conference Championship.
Will Steffen be suiting up for the US national team sooner rather than later? That might be a question for another day, or even year. For now, the most pressing matter is whether he can knock a couple of USMNT stalwarts/possible future USMNT teammates out of the playoffs and pull off his biggest upset yet — perhaps with a few more goosebump moments along the way.