COLUMBUS, Ohio — Goalkeepers often appear to live in a binary world. A shot on target is either saved or results in a goal. On-field decisions are either right or wrong. Mistakes oftentimes end up in the back of the net.
The same is true for U.S. players that head overseas. A player succeeds and spends multiple years in foreign climes and is hailed as a success, or the performer in question quickly heads back home, the assumption being that they couldn’t hack it.
Zack Steffen is proof that there is a grey area to both.
These days Steffen’s performances have made him a kind of goalkeeping flavor of the month. His stellar display against Atlanta United in the knockout round of MLS Cup playoffs has helped propel Columbus Crew SC to their second deep playoff run in three seasons.
“It’s awesome to get out in front of fans and show them what your talent is,” he said prior to Tuesday’s 0-0 draw against Toronto FC in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals.
But the memory of mistakes and lessons learned is never that far away for Steffen. No sooner does he finish talking about the Atlanta game, he brings up a blunder early in the season against the Houston Dynamo when an under-hit pass to Wil Trapp in the second minute was picked off by Romell Quioto, who then scored on a shot that went between Steffen’s legs.
“You’ve just got to take a deep breath and get over a mistake as quick as possible,” he said in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. “It’s in the past and you can’t do anything about it now. It’s just unlucky that when you’re a goalkeeper and you make a mistake it usually leads to a goal instead of a forward or a midfielder. That’s life. It’s all about learning from your mistakes.”
Other experiences — positive ones as well — add layer upon layer to a keeper’s development. For Steffen that began at age 9, when his team’s goalkeeper was forced to sit out by his parents due to grades. The coach asked for a volunteer to deputize in goal, and Steffen stepped forward. During the rest of the season he did so well that the original keeper eventually switched teams.
“I had a lot of fun with it and it just stayed with me,” Steffen said. “It was just fun flying around and diving on the ground. I was a little kid so I liked to be rambunctious.”
His affinity for the position eventually carried him to the Philadelphia Union’s academy team, and then to the University of Maryland. The college game often is held up as Exhibit A in terms of what is wrong with the sport in the U.S., but not everyone is ready for the pro game at age 18. Such was the case with Steffen, who spent the next two years in College Park.
“I wasn’t mature enough to just train for two hours and have the rest of the day off,” Steffen said. “So it was good that I went to college and got that bond with the players and the coaches and got to meet some friends outside the team. And my parents wanted me to learn some life skills. Every person needs to learn that, so that’s why I’m glad I went to college.”
After two seasons, Steffen felt he was ready to join the professional ranks. He signed with German side Freiburg, and his performances at the 2015 U-20 World Cup gave every indication that he was a keeper on the rise. But the realities and demands of the professional game were soon made apparent. Freiburg is a city about a quarter of the size of Columbus, and while Steffen said his teammates were “great,” the culture was such that it was looked upon as more of a business, as a competition for jobs. So without the support system of family and friends, a feeling of isolation soon took hold.
“It was like I was living on another planet; 6-hour time difference, 9-hour [flight]; a full day just to get home or have family come to me,” he said. “It was tough.”
Crew manager Gregg Berhalter can relate. He spent 14 of his 16 professional seasons abroad, seven of them in Germany. As such he is acutely aware of how difficult and important finding the right playing environment can be.
“I think when we talk about [playing overseas] it’s just words. But when you’re living it, it’s different, and when that’s your life and you’re not comfortable and you don’t feel like you’re in an environment that can help you perform, it’s real,” he said. “I’ve been there, and it’s a lot of lonely days, and it’s a lot of struggles, and it’s a lot of uphill battles. But it’s something that if you can endure it, there’s a huge upside as well. But again, it’s the environment, and with MLS being at a high level, it’s also a good alternative to guys that want to develop.”
Steffen spent just over 19 months with Freiburg before returning stateside, having never made a first-team appearance. Instead he played 14 games with the club’s reserve team in the German fourth tier. The impulse then is to look at Steffen’s time in Germany in binary fashion. He came back, so therefore it must be considered a failure.
But 19 months was enough time to learn some valuable lessons, and be exposed to a different way of looking at the game.
“German goalkeeping has a different style than American goalkeeping,” he said. “The instance of the kick save, you see that a lot more in German soccer. I went over there and they taught me that right away. We would train that almost every day. You don’t see that in American goalkeeping. You see ‘stay big and react’ or ‘commit to ground and throw your chest at the ball.'”
There was also more of an emphasis placed on building the attack from the back, which for Steffen meant playing the ball with his feet more. There was also a near obsessive attention to detail. Every touch was picked apart on video; the decisions made, the options that might have been overlooked.
“In the beginning it’s a little overwhelming,” Steffen said. “But I’m a perfectionist myself so I like to see all my touches from the previous game. I want to know what I could have done better, I want to know what the video sees compared to what I’m seeing out on the field. I like that.”
The European experience prepared Steffen well for life under Berhalter, a manager who Steffen describes as being even more obsessed with tactics and small details than his German counterparts.
“Sometimes, you’re just like, ‘Yeah, Gregg, shut up,’ or [keeper coach] Pat Onstad even. But Gregg and Pat have been amazing for this last year and a half,” Steffen said. “I’ve learned so much under them already. Just the way they read the game, it’s something I’ve never come across. I was taught about build-out in Germany, but the way that Gregg looks at the field and the players, it’s so detailed and particular.”
Steffen took hold of the starting spot at the beginning of the season and has grown as the campaign has progressed, with Berhalter lauding the keeper’s composure.
“That’s the mark of someone that’s going to be a top-level goalie,” Berhalter said.
Now Steffen is at the top of his game, but he’s not letting his gaze wander too far ahead.
“I just tell myself to stay in the moment,” he said. “Don’t think ahead of plays that could happen. And don’t think of the past, a bad play that I could have done better. I just tell myself to play the game and have fun. Communicating with the guys in front of me helps me stay in the game, and stay focused. Obviously you’re proud of yourself after the game. That’s my job, it’s my job to keep my team in it and to make the big plays.”
With the Crew heading into the second leg against Toronto on Wednesday on level terms, no doubt Columbus will need Steffen at his best once again.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.