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Zack Steffen, Downingtown-bred ex-Union goalkeeper prospect, joins Columbus Crew

The news item is that Downingtown's Zack Steffen, one of the U.S. youth national team program's top goalkeepers, has come back to America from German club SC Freiburg to join the Columbus Crew. The context, however...

The news item is that Downingtown's Zack Steffen, one of the U.S. youth national team program's top goalkeepers, has come back to America from German club SC Freiburg to join the Columbus Crew.

The context, however...

Let's go back to January 17, 2014, the day the Union drafted Andre Blake.

One of the most infamous moments that day came when the Union traded up to the No. 1 overall pick to grab Blake, by far the top prospect on the board.

At the time, Zac MacMath was the Union's starting goalkeeper, and it was presumed that Blake would be his backup.

The story has often been told that MacMath went running out of the draft hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center to complain to his agent about how the Union's move had knocked him off the starter's perch. Which it hadn't really, but everyone believed Blake wouldn't take long to prove his pro credentials.

That proved untrue, of course, primarily because the Union signed Rais M'bolhi six and a half months later. You may recall that then-CEO Nick Sakiewicz trumpeted the Union's possession of "three of the best goalkeepers in Major League Soccer" at the time, not withstanding the damage the M'bolhi deal did to the best prospect in the trio.

(You may also recall that Sakiewicz orchestrated the M'bolhi deal in part to help M'bolhi's agent, who was a personal friend, then went to great lengths to claim that he did no such thing. And you may have heard that Sakiewicz, who's now the commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, recently moved the league's headquarters to Conshohocken after bringing former Union colleagues Dave Rowan and Ashley Dabb to his new employer.)

Back to the draft hall. For a number of observers, the Union's selection of Blake wasn't so much about Zac MacMath's future as it was about Zack Steffen's.

At that point, Steffen was in the middle of his freshman year at the University of Maryland. A year and a half before then, Steffen played for the Union under-17 team - coached by current senior team manager Jim Curtin - that won the prestigious Generation Adidas Cup.

When that GA Cup win happened in August of 2012, the Union's high school/academy at YSC Sports in Wayne didn't exist yet. So the club's youth teams were pretty much all it had, save for some "official affiliations" with other local youth programs.

By January of 2014, Steffen was 18, and while he was still raw, he had already helped Maryland reach the NCAA tournament title game a month earlier - at PPL Park, no less.

The sense was that Steffen probably needed another year of seasoning with the Terrapins, an elite college program with a rich history of developing serious pro talent. By the end of the 2014 college season, he would have been 19 years old, and ready to be worth a Union homegrown contract.

Steffen didn't come home, though. German Bundesliga club SC Freiburg offered him a chance to move to Europe, and he took it.

At the time, Sakiewicz told me and a number of other reporters that Steffen didn't want to play for the Union, so the team believed it had no chance to sign him.

One factor may have been financial, since the Union were never going to be able to match the far larger salary that Freiburg offered.

But it was never really known whether the Union made a serious effort to convince Steffen of the merits of staying home. And surely the Union's acquisition of two other marquee goalkeepers while Steffen was considering his future had to have some kind of impact.

So Steffen went to Germany. Just about everyone assumed that he'd stay there. As recently as last month, esteemed German soccer magazine Kicker reported that Steffen was on the verge of a promotion to the first team.

It is stunning that he left.

At the same time, Columbus head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter is due credit for a year and a half of hard work that no one knew about.

Berhalter told me late Friday afternoon that the Crew filed a discovery claim on Steffen in early 2015, effectively calling dibs if he was to return to America - with financial consequences for any other team that wanted to sign him.

The "discovery" rule is arguably the league's most inane and annoying fiat, and it should be abolished. But that is for another column. The Crew played the game right with Steffen. And when Steffen's agent let Berhalter know that Steffen wanted to come back to America - which happened only very recently - Berhalter made his move.

Now to answer the big question: How can one MLS club "discover" a former player for another MLS club's youth teams?

The Union's lack of a full-fledged academy at the time when Steffen played for their youth teams seems to be a big part of the answer. But it's far from the only part.

A few people who are well-versed in the rules and Steffen's background confirmed to me again Friday that the Union never offered Steffen a contract back in the day.

I was also told that the Union never officially tried to claim Steffen as a Homegrown Player, and that when Steffen left for Germany at the end of 2014, he had not logged enough training time with the Union to qualify for Homegrown status.

So if you're wondering whether the Union can claim any compensation for the Crew signing one of their former prospects: No, they can't. And they know it.

But that nagging "What if?" just won't go away.

It's no secret that MLS' homegrown player eligibility rules were notoriously bendable back then - and yes, I'm calling a year and a half ago "back then." In a league that's just 21 seasons old, a year and a half feels like a really long time.

If the Union had the resources and desire to sign Steffen, could they have convinced him to do it? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Would you turn down a chance to join a Bundesliga team? Would you have known then what things would be like now?

Maybe you can answer the first question. I don't know how you can answer the second.

Even now, Steffen is still just 21 years old. Columbus signed him to be a backup to incumbent Steve Clark, not the No. 1 starter.

Steffen still has many years left in his playing career, and still has all the tools needed to continue the lineage of outstanding U.S. national team goalkeepers.

"When you talk about any player that's 21 years old, they're in the developmental stage," Berhalter told me. "This is a start of a new journey for him. He's excited about it, and I'm sure, after communicating with him, he understands the amount of work it's going to take."

Steffen doesn't seem to be complaining about his change of career course. He told the Crew's website in an interview published Friday morning that he's "very thrilled to have my family six hours away, and my friends six hours away."

There are also people six hours away who are wondering what could have been. That's their problem, not his.