After years as a backup, Zack Steffen steps up to starting role for Crew SC

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ever since he left the University of Maryland to sign with German side SC Freiburg in 2014, Zack Steffen has been dubbed a “project.”

Brimming with potential but still considered too young for the responsibility of a starter, the goalkeeper has been told to learn from his elders and wait his turn.

But in his second season with Columbus Crew SC, less than eight months since Gregg Berhalter brought him to the club, the 21-year-old has been handed the starting role.

After two years without game time as a reserve with Freiburg, the US youth international and Philadelphia Union academy product started his first match for Crew SC Saturday, a 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire.

Steffen soaked the moment in, and admitted he had some pre-game butterflies in MAPFRE Stadium.

“I definitely had nerves coming into the locker room this afternoon,” he said. “Usually once I step on the field, the nerves go away … but the nerves came back a little bit when we lined up and walk on the field. But once the whistle blew and we got rolling, it went away and I focused on the game.”

The departure of Steve Clark in the offseason led to a goalkeeping battle between Steffen and Brad Stuver for the starting job in Columbus, and it took an entire preseason for Berhalter to choose Steffen as his starter.

Even when the decision was announced at Crew SC’s media day Thursday, the Columbus boss made it clear that there wasn’t a gulf between the two ‘keepers.

“Brad was playing well, Zack was playing well, and it wasn’t until this last week of the preseason that Zack separated himself from Brad,” Berhalter said. “This is never an easy decision. As a coach, you’d like it to be much more clear. But we’re comfortable with the decision.”

Berhalter isn’t treating Steffen like a kid, and the goalkeeper’s tenure as starter comes with a warning that Stuver could see game time if he falters. And while he said a starting job doesn’t change his mentality, being handed the gloves for a season opener means a lot to Steffen.

“It feels good that people trust me – that my hard work has paid off,” he said. “But the hard work isn’t going to stop.”

That work includes growing into a Columbus system that asks a lot of its goalkeepers, particularly with their feet. Berhalter said the team is “being smart” with what they ask from the young ‘keeper, and Steffen said he’s working daily to improve his footwork and decision-making with the ball.

Captain Wil Trapp, who knew Steffen from youth national teams, said he’s been impressed with the way the goalkeeper has grown into the role since arriving in Columbus.

“It’s been really cool to see him mature,” Trapp said. “He’s a gamer. He’s one of those guys who, when he gets in the game, he’s laser-focused and he makes the right decisions. He loves to communicate. So I’ve been massively impressed with that side of things.”

Though he made a pair of impressive saves in his debut, Steffen isn’t getting comfortable.

“At the end of the day, I still have to do everything in my power to keep that position,” he said. “It feels good, but that doesn’t stop me from working hard and staying grounded and staying humble.”

Stay connected: The all-new, completely redesigned, FREE official MLS app is your best mobile source for scores, news, analysis and highlights. Download:  App Store  |  Google Play