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Zack Steffen Talks U-20 World Cup and Freiburg

The 19-year-old goalkeeper came up big when the U.S. under-20 team needed him to, and now the former University of Maryland heads to Germany to make a name for himself with SC Freiburg.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 28, 2015
9:58 AM
IF THERE WAS ONE MOMENT that will be remembered from the United States U-20 national team’s World Cup qualifying run in Jamaica, it came in the 52nd minute when goalkeeper Zack Steffen was asked to preserve a 1-0 lead.

Just a minute before, the U.S. was whistled for a handball in the box and El Salvador was awarded a penalty. Needing a win to advance and put an inconsistent qualifying campaign in the rearview mirror, the U.S. needed Steffen to make a stop. Otherwise El Salvador would be level and have all of the momentum.

With the pressure palpable, Jose Villavicencio stepped up and unleashed a shot to his left. Steffen dove and made perhaps the biggest save of his career.

The day before, the United States practiced penalties to be prepared for a possible tiebreaker after 120 minutes of deadlocked soccer. Steffen was sharp in practice and he felt prepared—but every keeper has his own approach. Some keepers simply guess, but for the Downingtown, Pa., native, it is a mental battle.

“I just watch the players as they walk up,” Steffen told American Soccer Now. “I look to see if they are going to look one way. Usually if they look one way then they are going to go the other. I look at their body shape when they’re running up to the ball. It’s really just watching the player. It’s kind of a mind game at the same time.”

“We just went over the scouting,” he continued. “He went up the same way—went to my right—earlier in this tournament. That was kind of clue. At the same time he could have also gone to my left to switch it up. But I saw him look to my left so I thought he was going to try to trick me and go right—and he did.”

U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos came away impressed with the young backstop and sees Steffen as a rising star.

“With Zack in goal—we’re very fortunate in that way,” Ramos said. “We have very good goalkeepers and Zack is definitely one of the next ones to come up. And so between the two center backs and the goalkeeper I think they did an amazing job throughout the whole tournament.”

Last month, Steffen elected to leave the University of Maryland after his second season and sign a deal with SC Freiburg. He will join up with the Bundesliga club later this week and is hoping to get games with its reserve team this season.

Steffen's path to a professional career was surrounded by question marks up until recently. He was eligible to sign a homegrown contract with the Philadelphia Union but the club has made numerous moves to acquire goalkeepers in recent years, including drafting Andre Blake with the first overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft and acquiring Algerian international Raïs M'Bolhi following the 2014 World Cup.

Steffen, however, said that there was little chance for MLS once Freiburg got involved due to the club’s sizable offer and Bundesliga status.

“I think everybody’s dream is to play overseas,” Steffen said. “The offer they gave me, you can’t really turn it down. The whole offer and the setup, when I went over to check out the city, I just loved it. The whole team and the staff was just so welcoming and very professional. It was a no-brainer.

"Obviously it’s going to be challenging going overseas on my own, playing with the reserves. Training is going to be tough. Hopefully I’ll get as many games as I can. But that is going to be tough adjusting to that lifestyle. I think the national team and Maryland have set me up with a good foundation.”

While the rest of this season will be about Freiburg, Steffen has his eyes set on New Zealand for this summer’s U-20 World Cup. For the U.S. team to advance from group play and succeed, Steffen will have to have an impressive tournament.

Qualification was more difficult than expected for the U.S. but Steffen doesn’t necessarily believe that that is an indication that the team should not expect to succeed at the World Cup. New Zealand will likely feature better field conditions and opponents who prefer to play an open game. Jamaica was difficult but Steffen believes the mentality of having to fight through four straight must-win games and to not concede a goal in any of them is an indication of the team’s mental toughness—particularly on the defensive and goalkeeping side.

“There is always work to be done,” Steffen said. “That will come when we get together next and leading up to the World Cup. But I do hope the conditions are a little bit better for our sake. But I am confident in this group. We obviously had to fight. So team unity and the bond we all share is just really strong. We all really believe in each other and have confidence in each other. It’s just a real tight group.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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