Zack Steffen’s MLS playoffs heroics remind everyone why the Coatesville native is a star goalkeeper
Zack Steffen isn't the next men's soccer star from the Philadelphia area anymore. He's the current one.
WASHINGTON — Zack Steffen isn't the next men's soccer star from the Philadelphia area anymore. He's the current one.
We like to claim Christian Pulisic as local because he's from Hershey and he's a Sixers fan. But Steffen, a Coatesville native and product of Downingtown West High, fits the bill even better.
And as all of American soccer has seen during this year's MLS playoffs, he fits the bill of being a star, too.
Steffen, the No. 1 goalkeeper for the U.S. men's national team, didn't just make two saves in the Columbus Crew's first-round penalty shootout upset of D.C. United. He stopped Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta, D.C.'s two best players, and he made it look easy.
"I just tried to stay in the moment and keep the the nerves down, and try and have fun with it," Steffen said afterward.
He wasn't having fun in the first half, though, when a cross slipped through his hands and D.C. scored the opening goal. Fortunately for him, it didn't take long for the Columbus to tie the game.
"He came in at halftime and said, 'Thanks for bailing me out, guys,' " Crew manager Gregg Berhalter said. "He knew his mistake. And I think that's a real underrated quality of Zack: his ability to stay composed. Even if he makes mistakes, which he has very few [of] this year, he's able to stay calm and play through it."
Columbus midfielder and captain Wil Trapp made sure to do his part to keep Steffen's head on straight.
"I told him, 'We're going to need you to win us this game.' … He literally took that to heart," Trapp said. Later, he added: "He just is one of those guys that the moment is never too big for."
Steffen, in turn, made sure to thank his colleagues afterward.
"They had my back and brought me back up to my feet," he said. "That's what teams are and should be."
Steffen excelled in the second half and beyond. His full-stretch diving save on Luciano Acosta in the 90th minute would have made all the highlight reels no matter what happened thereafter.
"I knew it was getting late into the game and the ball was coming across, so I just tried to get in a good position — and I knew he was going to shoot it," Steffen said. "Fortunate enough that I got a little touch on it."
A half-hour later, it was time for the shootout, and time for Steffen to be the hero again.
"I was just trying to get a good push, focusing on getting a good push and extending and getting as far across the goal as I could," he said. Asked if he spent much time studying Rooney's and Acosta's tendencies, he said, "It's more instinctual, and it's more based on the run-up and how they move."
Steffen had something else in his favor: the experience of winning a shootout in last year's playoffs. Wednesday's heroics brought back memories of last year's upset win at Atlanta United, where he made eight saves in 120 scoreless minutes and stopped two penalties afterward.
He was typically modest afterward, saying last year's win gave him "a slight advantage." Trapp let out a bit more.
"The parallels are quite scary," Trapp said, right down to both games having the same referee. "Knowing that we can rely on each other and we've done it before, that's a big part of this. Looking guys in the eye and knowing that it can happen, and if we do the right things, it will happen."
Steffen came up big again in Sunday's first leg of the semifinal series against the New York Red Bulls in Columbus. He had four saves, including a big diving stop in the 93rd minute, to help preserve a 1-0 win over the Eastern Conference's top seed.
It's a narrow margin for the Crew to take into next Sunday's second leg at Red Bull Arena, but all the pressure will be on the home team. New York didn't just win the Supporters' Shield for having MLS' best regular-season this year, they racked up the highest points total in league history.
Historians will also note that the Red Bulls have never beaten Columbus in a playoff round, going all the way back to their old days as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. The teams met in the 2015 conference finals (another year when the Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield), the 2008 championship game and the 1998 conference semifinals.
New York has the firepower to overcome the first-leg deficit, thanks to prolific striker Bradley Wright-Phillips and dynamic playmaker Kaku. If Columbus is able to hold on and pull off the upset, there's little doubt that Steffen will be right in the middle of things again.