CARY, N.C. — Alex Bono and Zack Steffen have faced off six times over the past 12 months as the starting goalkeepers for Toronto FC and Columbus Crew SC, respectively. Still, both instantly, and accurately, recall their first competitive match against each other.
“One time in college, when Maryland came up to Syracuse,” Bono said.
“My freshman year [at Maryland] in 2013, he was at Syracuse and we went up there,” Steffen said. “I think we beat them 1-0.”
Amid their current bevy of MLS bouts, Bono and Steffen are again teammates on the US national team, this time for a March training camp in North Carolina that culminates Tuesday with a friendly against Paraguay (7 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, UDN). It’s the second consecutive USMNT camp for both keepers. In January, Steffen earned his first senior team cap in a friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bono, whose debut senior team call-up came in January 2015, is still looking for his first USMNT cap.
“I’m just keeping my head down and working hard,” Bono said. “If it comes, then it’s a blessing and I’ll be honored. If it doesn’t, I’ll continue to come in and work hard until I get my first one.”
US national team interim coach Dave Sarachan called three goalkeepers into the March camp. The most "senior" keeper is 27-year-old Bill Hamid, the former D.C. United minder who has five USMNT caps to his credit. Bono and Steffen return as part of an influx of younger players entering the senior team setup in the wake of the U.S. washing out of FIFA World Cup qualifying last October.
This is also the second straight USMNT camp without Tim Howard or Brad Guzan, American goalkeeping figureheads for more than a decade. While Steffen has trained on the national team level with both Howard and Guzan, the 23-year-old Bono never has. Interestingly, Bono sees this innocence of youth as a benefit as the national team embarks on its next phase of development.
“The beauty of this camp is nobody really has guys to lean on,” Bono said. “We’re kind of creating our own paths here, and that’s something that’s really unique about bringing in guys who are generally inexperienced at the professional and international levels. Bill [Hamid] would be the most experienced among the goalkeepers, but for us to come in and have to be open and competitive day in and day out … is really exciting.”
The 22-year-old Steffen is one of only 12 US players ever named to two FIFA Under-20 World Cup rosters. After beginning his professional career with Bundesliga club Freiburg, Steffen signed with MLS in 2016. He’s appeared in 42 MLS games since becoming Crew SC's starter last year.
“The US coaches are definitely watching our [MLS] games,” Steffen said. “They’re evaluating all the players, and that’s how they get their list to bring in. Then they get to see us up-close when we’re in [national team] camp.”
Bono, who began his professional career with Toronto FC in 2015, comes to camp amid a busy time for his club, which return to MLS action this Friday against Real Salt Lake. Toronto FC then plays the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinals against Club América next week.
“It’s obviously exciting that I get to be here and part of this camp,” Bono said. “But we also have matches coming up in Toronto. It’s about staying fit and sharp, and establishing myself here while realizing that as soon as I get back in Toronto, it’s straight back to business with them.”
But first, Bono and Steffen have an international friendly this Tuesday. While Steffen has never played at WakeMed Soccer Park, Bono did once, a loss to Louisville back in the 2014 ACC Men’s Soccer Tournament.
“That was my first time here in Cary,” Bono said with a laugh. “I’m hoping my second time will be a little bit more joyful.”