SHORT HILLS, N.J. — Zack Steffen is a better player today for his past experiences, both positive and negative.
There was that unsuccessful stint at SC Freiburg that helped the now 24-year-old understand what it takes to be successful in Germany.
And then in three years with Columbus Crew SC, Steffen said he became a better professional, both on and off the field.
It’s helped him to where he is today — the No. 1 goalkeeper for the US men’s national team and a regular starter at Fortuna Dusseldorf on loan from Manchester City.
“I definitely learned a lot in Columbus playing those games, playing so many games,” he said at a media roundtable Wednesday. “I definitely learned a lot about myself, my game and my [mentality] during those games and how to stay focused. And then off the field, just how to be a true professional. That's definitely set me up to be more successful over here.”
Steffen’s second experience in Germany is far more positive than his first, when he was never truly comfortable at Freiburg after making the move to go there following his sophomore season at the University of Maryland.
“It gave me expectations,” Steffen said. “I knew what to expect this time, for the most part, in training and in games and in the culture off the field. So in those ways, Freiburg really definitely helped me.”
Now older and more experienced, Steffen’s transition back to Germany was made easier by an Instagram message from Dusseldorf midfielder Alfredo Morales, who joins Steffen on the USMNT roster for September friendlies against Mexico on Friday (8:30 PM ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN) and Uruguay on Tuesday at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium.
“It was really nice of him to reach out to me,” Steffen said. “I was on vacation when he did and it brought a smile to my face, just to have some familiarity over there already because everything's new. It was great. And I'm definitely lucky to have him over there.”
Morales, who is making his return to the USMNT for the first time in three years, said Dusseldorf’s general manager gave him the heads up the club was signing Steffen before it was announced.
“If you ever need anything, I'm here and trying to support you,” Morales said of his message to Steffen. “I’m helping you out with German language, or if he's looking for something, some apartments or whatever. Of course, I'm always trying to help my teammates, and especially him because I know he was in Germany already and It wasn't the best time for him. I was just curious that he comes in and he feels good.”
In his Dusseldorf debut, Steffen was named Man of the Match for a 10-save performance in a 3-1 win at Werder Bremen.
"I think it's a really good environment for him to be in — getting minutes, getting playing time and being around people who believe in you. Because as a player, the coach’s confidence in you is a big deal, it's almost everything for a player, just to know that he's wanted and to know that he’s looked after and that he’s counted on. I think it's a really good environment for him. I think he's done well, so far," said USMNT teammate Weston McKennie, a veteran of the Bundesliga at rival club Schalke.
He’s also feeling more comfortable off the field, securing an apartment and taking German lessons, although Morales jokes Steffen still has a ways to go there.
“He thinks sometimes he's good or he understands a lot,” Morales said with a laugh. “No, he’s ok, he can understand parts.”
Steffen isn’t about to rest on his laurels. His start in the Bundesliga has been positive, but that’s all it is right now — a start. He’s got bigger goals.
“My goal is obviously to play for [Manchester] City, get back to City and compete there for a spot,” Steffen said. “I have those goals, but at the same time I take it day-by-day and week-by-week and try to progress and get better playing the games, execute my role and learn from the guys on my team and my coaches. That process will hopefully get me back to City.”