A year and a half ago, Zack Steffen’s future was uncertain.
Here’s how the Pennsylvania native wound up in a position to give us one of the most memorable goalkeeping performances in recent MLS playoff memory.
Steffen spent much of his youth as a highly touted goalkeeping prospect in the Philadelphia Union system, winning the Generation Adidas Cup in 2012 with the Union’s academy squad.
He quickly made a name for himself in youth national teams as well, playing a part in the United States’ U-18 through U-23 squads.
Perhaps his biggest moment with the young national team was his performance at the 2015 U-20 World Cup, where he helped lead the US into the quarterfinals, where they were only beaten after a 0-0 draw required nine rounds of penalty kicks to break the deadlock against Serbia.
Rather than jumping to MLS or heading to Europe immediately, Steffen decided to play soccer with the University of Maryland.
In college, Steffen played every minute in his two years with the Terps, racking up several awards along the way, including all-star team nods and Most Valulable Defensive Player of the Big Ten Tournament in his sophomore season.
At Maryland, he played with Crew SC teammate Alex Crognale, who later signed with Columbus as a Homegrown defender.
After two seasons in College Park, Steffen decided it was time to head to Europe. He signed with SC Freiburg in Germany’s second division in late 2014.
At Freiburg, Steffen found himself largely without chances. He never made a start with the German club’s first team, and made 14 appearances for Freiburg’s reserve squad. By the summer of 2016, Steffen was ready to head back to the States.
“It’s definitely tougher, especially being a goalkeeper, to not have a support system over there and not have your family and friends there,” Steffen said of his time in Germany, “especially after a bad training or a tough loss to take your mind off of it and hang out with family and friends.”
Despite growing up in Pennsylvania and playing with Union academy teams, Steffen was not considered a Homegrown.
Union head coach Jim Curtin said in July that Steffen was one of “a lot of guys in our league that should have been Homegrowns for us.”
Steffen admitted he had “a lot of motivation” when playing the Union this season, and said it was “a different feeling than the other 20 MLS games I've played this season” to see them for the first time.
Unbeknownst to most MLS onlookers, it was Gregg Berhalter and Crew SC who held Steffen’s rights, not the Union. Columbus had made a discovery claim on the young goalkeeper, and signed him in July of 2016.
While even Steffen didn’t realize he had been on Berhalter’s radar, he said he welcomed the move.
“I didn’t know [about the discovery claim],” he said. “My agent told me that when I told him I wanted to come back. But I love it here, so I’m glad it worked out.”
In Columbus, Steffen spent the first few months of his MLS career learning from assistant coach and former MLS goalkeeper Pat Onstad, as well as veteran Steve Clark.
When it came time for Clark to move on, Berhalter let Steffen battle with experienced backup Brad Stuver for the starting role. The Columbus boss knew it was early to hand Steffen the reins, and said the choice was “never an easy decision.”
And for Steffen, winning the starting job was the first time since Maryland that someone had put their trust in him.
“It feels good that people trust me – that my hard work has paid off,” he said at the time.
Eight months later, Steffen has grown into the role. An up-and-down start to the season gave way to a consistency that even Berhalter admitted he didn’t expect, and Steffen played in every minute for Columbus this year, tallying 98 saves and nine shutouts on the season and finishing with the most minutes played among MLS 'keepers.
While Steffen isn’t one to talk about his own accomplishments, Berhalter is happy to praise his young ‘keeper, who he said has grown in almost every area.
“I honestly can’t say, ‘This one area he’s improved so much,’” Crew SC’s head coach said Friday. “Overall, his play has been very consistent. He’s very calm, very poised and has made very few big mistakes. And then he makes the big saves.”