Zack Steffen has just about everything a soccer player could want.
He’s part of one of the world’s biggest clubs, England’s Manchester City. The training facility is among the world’s most lavish, bankrolled by billionaire owners from the United Arab Emirates. His teammates include world superstars Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and Sergio Aguero. The coaching staff is led by Pep Guardiola, one of the game’s all-time philosophers and winners.
There are even Americans to socialize with, since Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle are playing for City’s women’s team this season. They’re planning to all have Thanksgiving dinner together.
But there’s one big thing that the goalkeeper lacks: regular playing time.
He knew it might happen when he joined the English superpower last July. At first, Steffen was far enough down the depth chart that it made sense to loan him to Germany’s Fortuna Dusseldorf last season. But now he’s the No. 2 to starter Ederson. That means he’s on the bench a lot.
The Coatesville native has played just two games for City since coming back from Germany. Both have been in the EFL Cup, a tournament that big English clubs treat as an afterthought. It’s understandable, and it might even be OK if not for the fact that Steffen was out injured for the second half of the last Bundesliga season. His City debut on Sept. 24 was his first game action since last Dec. 22. He suffered a patellar tendon injury after that, then suffered a knee-ligament injury in late April.
On Thursday, Steffen played for the U.S. national team for the first time since October of last year, captaining the squad in a scoreless tie at Wales. On Monday, the Americans will face Concacaf rival Panama on neutral turf in Austria (2:45 p.m., FS1, UniMas and TUDN.)
Sometime next year, World Cup qualifying will start and the games will count for real. And if Steffen is still on City’s bench, the question he faced in a slew of forms during a transcontinental Zoom call Wednesday will keep getting asked.
How can he be in top shape for the national team if he isn’t playing for his club?
There’s an obvious answer: Manchester City practices at a higher level than many teams play games at. And it was the answer Steffen gave with his trademark calm and politeness.
“The talent that we have at that club has already made me a better keeper,” he said. “Their goalie coach is really detailed and is very eager to make me a better goalkeeper. And then just working with those guys day in and day out, the training, the level of intensity, and skill, and talent, and all that, everything that goes into it, I feel myself growing.”
Guardiola’s system is especially demanding of players, laid out down to the smallest details of how to pass and defend. Although Guardiola has been a manager for 13 years, only a small fraction of the world’s players have learned his ways firsthand.
“It’s awesome to be on the inside and really see how he works day to day,” Steffen said. “He has a good balance of being focused and intense, but with that he brings humor, and he brings just his genuineness, and just kindness.”
But there’s still nothing quite like a live game, and Steffen hasn’t played in one since Sept. 30.
“Obviously, I do want to get games. They’re most important, and I want to be out on the field,” he said. “I’ll keep working hard and keep pushing those guys in front of me, and they’ll keep pushing me.”
Steffen said he has fully recovered physically from the knee injury. But the mental side of the game has needed some work, too.
“City has given me a lot of confidence to go back out on the field,” he said, taking time to again specifically praise the goalkeeper coaches. “Each day, the keeper coach, the keepers, the players, they’re pushing me to get better, and I feel like I’m in that process. I’m feeling good and feeling better each and every day, each and every week. And just being around those high-level players has made me better — and has made me a more confident player as well.”
Goalkeepers (3): Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge, Belgium), Chituru Odunze (Leicester City, England), Zack Steffen (Manchester City, England)
Defenders (7): John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg, Germany), Reggie Cannon (Boavista, Portugal), Sergino Dest (Barcelona, Spain), Matt Miazga (Anderlecht, Belgium), Tim Ream (Fulham, England), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich, Germany), Antonee Robinson (Fulham, England)
Midfielders (7): Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig, Germany), Johnny Cardoso (Internacional, Brazil), Richard Ledezma (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands), Sebastian Lletget (Los Angeles Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus, Italy), Yunus Musah (Valencia, Spain), Owen Otasowie (Wolverhampton, England)
Forwards (8): Konrad de la Fuente (Barcelona, Spain), Nicholas Gioacchini (Caen, France), Ulysses Llanez (Heerenveen, Netherlands), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund, Germany), Sebastian Soto (Telstar, Netherlands), Tim Weah (Lille, France)