Zack Steffen - Columbus Crew SC
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Boehm: Zack Steffen’s got the mojo; now can he keep it?

Sometimes it’s not merely a question of how well you perform, but where and when – and who’s watching.

At age 23, just two years into his life as a starting professional goalkeeper, Zack Steffen has already made quite a name for himself. Thanks to two straight years of shootout heroics for Columbus Crew SC in the Knockout Round of the playoffs, he’s gained a reputation as a penalty-kick specialist (and rightly so, as opponents have only scored 4 of 11 against him all-time).

On top of that, a few miracle-level saves in big games – let’s start with that daylight robbery of Bradley Wright-Phillips last weekend – have added further clutch credentials, as does his obvious centrality to a Columbus squad that’s making a habit of upending expectations at this time of year.

Add in his status as the presumed frontrunner in the race to become the US national team’s next starting ‘keeper, sprinkle a bit of the hype that naturally gravitates towards talented North Americans of his age and potential, and you have the perfect recipe for an MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award – data be damned…

 

I’ve learned that few modern soccer topics inflame and polarize opinions like quantitative analytics. So odds are pretty good that you’re either nodding vigorously or shaking your head dismissively at this thread from my colleague Ben Baer, MLSsoccer.com’s top quant, as he explains why so many were surprised by this year’s GKOTY winner. Yet that’s part of the deal here: Steffen won the eye test for a lot of voters, especially his fellow players, and that’s hard for others to overcome.

Whether you think Steffen was the most deserving candidate or not (full disclosure, my ballot had Stefan Frei and Luis Robles on it), this prize further underlines just what a child of destiny the charismatic Pennsylvanian has become.

By seizing the spotlight when it’s shining the brightest around these parts – national-television occasions like last year’s packed playoff game in Atlanta, this year’s narrative-busting defeat of Wayne Rooney’s D.C. United, the MLS All-Star Game, and really any occasion involving the USMNT, particularly a result like the 1-1 draw with France in June – Steffen has built a strong case for American Soccer’s Goalkeeper of the Future™. And that’s something he’s going to wear on his sleeve for the foreseeable future, mostly for better but possibly for worse.

You know what I mean: ‘Keeper is one of the few areas where the United States has reliably produced top-shelf talent over the decades, building a long, proud legacy of game-changing shotstoppers from Tony Meola to Kasey Keller to Brad Friedel to Tim Howard, to name just a few. So even casual fans tend to get pretty interested, and opinionated, when it comes to the next to step up and claim that lineage.

Brad Guzan has enormous experience and is trusted by the US coaching staff, but is moving into the back end of the typical career bell curve. Bill Hamid is a commanding presence with a verve for jaw-dropping reaction saves, though snakebit by poorly-timed injuries when it comes to the national team. Ethan Horvath presents superb technique and lives in a fiercely competitive European big-club environment, albeit a bit further from stateside audiences than most. Alex Bono’s prospects have risen and fallen with the feast-to-famine fortunes of his club team, Toronto FC.

So right now, Steffen is in pole position. He’s made a compelling case, and done his best work when the most eyes are on him. His underlying numbers in the daily grind of league play point to the gaps in his game, however, and should remind us that he’s still something of a kid in the elongated, psychologically-demanding lifespan of GKs. Can he take the next step forward, both this month and over the next two to three years?

Sunday’s second-leg Eastern Conference Semifinal clash with the New York Red Bulls (7:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN2, TVAS) is Steffen’s latest chance to both play the star and build his resume. Crew SC will almost certainly have to hop on his shoulders and ride his form in tough moments if they are to protect their aggregate advantage and advance, and that fact will probably apply throughout their postseason run.

These playoffs are tailor-made for clutch performers like him. And now that he’s shown himself to be a big-game hunter, he’s going to have to keep it up.

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