When Zack Steffen stepped onto the field at Mapfre stadium this past weekend he likely felt a rush of emotion as he played his final game in Major League Soccer for the Columbus Crew SC.
It had been quite a journey for the young goalkeeper that began in July, 2016. That’s when Steffen decided to return home to the United States and join Columbus. He had spent the previous 18 months living in the German city of Freiburg, but he was far from happy.
“I was 19 when I went over there,” Steffen told Massive Report this week, “and my mindset when I went over there was to pretty much to go over there, work hard and try it out.”
Steffen made over a dozen appearances for Freiburg’s second team in the German fourth tier. Unfortunately, his time there would be disrupted by injuries and burdened by stress and isolation. It was a sharp contrast to his experience playing in college.
His home was only a two hour drive from the University of Maryland and so Steffen’s parents were at almost every game.
In Germany, he would go months without contacting home (his mother remembers at first it took a while for him to get WiFi installed).
“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.
The 24-year-old’s story is far from unique, however. American soccer is littered with examples of players that head to Europe and return with shattered dreams and a heavy heart. Sadly not all of those peers undergo the career rehabilitation that he has.
In 2017, Steffen began pre-season training with the Crew. What was initially a struggle for a young goalkeeper trying to regain momentum suddenly clicked into place one Friday night.
“Gregg [Berhalter] called me to his room and we just had a five-minute conversation and he just told me that the coaching staff and the players have confidence in me and they trust me and they just want me to go out there and play,” Steffen said. “When I heard that, I had a really good tournament in Charleston and I think it just clicked there and the confidence just kept growing.”
He played all 34 regular season games that year as Columbus reached the Eastern Conference finals — knocking out a much fancied Atlanta United in the process. That night in Georgia saw Steffen shine as he produced heroics throughout the 120 minute game and the ensuing penalty shoot-out.
He continued that strong form in 2018 and eventually claimed the league’s Goalkeeper of The Year award (as well as being named in the league’s best XI). That was when Manchester City took notice of Steffen, and by December they had agreed a deal to sign the goalkeeper for a fee in the region of £7million.
“He's only been playing consistently for the past two seasons but has improved drastically in that time and should only keep getting better,” professional goalkeeper and analyst for the Athletic Matt Pyzdrowski told Oddschecker. “Steffen has all the tools to succeed—size, reach, agility, and speed—and has solid fundamentals that he can continue to build upon — positioning, balance, and footwork — at the next level.
"What is so exciting is that he so much potential. He also has an ability to perform in big moments. I think of his performances in the MLS Cup Playoffs and any number of game with the MNT—vs France in particular.”
Pyzdrowski grew up in Illinois but has spent the last eight years living in Sweden, and can attest to the struggles of leaving the U.S..
“The most difficult thing is getting used to being on your own,” he said. “You leave the comforts of home to venture into the unknown. The first 6 months away for me were so hard just accepting it all—a new language, a new system and style of play, new teammates. Though once you earn the trust and respect of your teammates and begin to get invited out to places (lunches, dinner, golf, etc) a lot of those issues begin to disappear.”
Steffen has been quick to talk of how much he has grown up in Columbus. In his words, a move to Europe is ‘what I want 100 percent, this is what I need to better myself’.
Five years have passed since his spell with Freiburg, and if reports are to be believed he will begin next season on loan in the Bundesliga with Fortuna Dusseldorf.
The first time Steffen left for Germany he did so unprepared for what awaited him. Now 24 years-old with a self-confidence and determination developed in Columbus he returns to Europe ready to seize a second chance at a first impression.