OBETZ, Ohio – Almost exactly a year ago, Zack Steffen burst onto the scene in the biggest opportunity of his career.
Columbus Crew SC and their young goalkeeper were traveling to Atlanta United for their Knockout Round match in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup playoffs in front of 70,000 fans ready for their first playoff game.
In a wild but scoreless match, Steffen came up huge in the 120 minutes of regulation and extra time and the ensuing penalty-kick shootout, stopping eight shots in open play and saving two penalties.
For Steffen, it was the exclamation point on his first season as a starter and a clutch display that led him to repeated starts in 2018 with the US national team, a leader for Columbus and now a finalist for 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.
Now, Steffen gets another chance to grab the spotlight.
Columbus travels for their Knockout Round game yet again, this time to scorching hot D.C. United Thursday (8 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, TVAS, TSN) at Audi Field. It’s a position Steffen relishes, especially given that his team won’t be favored yet again.
“At this time of the year, (being an underdog is) the best,” said Steffen, who is expected to be 100 percent for Thursday despite suffering a bruised forehead in Sunday's regular season finale. “Upsets are great and playing against teams who want to play and teams who are doing well is what this time of year is meant for. It’s going to be a great night.”
Steffen said he’s looking forward to the “extra nerves and extra motivation” that come along with such a big game. And while he admitted he’s at a different point in his career than he was last year, the game is still conjuring up some of the same emotion.
“It’s a little bit different from last year,” he said, “but there are a lot of those same feelings.”
Though Steffen is far more experienced than he was that night in Atlanta, coach Gregg Berhalter said he’s not changing expectations or putting any more of a burden on his 23-year-old goalkeeper.
“For everyone, it’s just doing their role,” Berhalter said. “There’s no bigger expectation on Zack in this game than there was last game. There’s no bigger expectation on anyone. We want to go out there and do our roles and execute to the best of our ability.”
Steffen agreed, and said he didn’t want to approach the game any differently than other matches, including last year’s win.
“It’s just staying at that higher level that I’m at right now,” he said. “I want to continue to grow and stay consistent and strong back there and being a leader and an anchor for the guys back there.”
A leader and an anchor is exactly how Steffen’s defense sees him.
Center back Jonathan Mensah said he and the team’s defenders consider Steffen an integral part of how they operate.
“He’s one of the best goalies in the league, and he’s part of our defense,” Mensah said. “He sees everything behind us, and his communication is always good for us and really helps us. So wherever he directs us, we always listen. We make his job easy, and I’m sure he thinks he makes our job easy. So working together with him brings out the best in us.”
Crew SC know another upset win is a tall task, but Steffen and his defense aren’t backing down against Wayne Rooney and one of the league’s hottest teams.
“They’re obviously on fire,” he said. “We’re going to have to put out those fires and prevent them from doing anything.”