A 26-year-old Downingtown West alumnus recently became the first American ever to win a title in the English Premier League, one of the world’s most prestigious soccer competitions.
Has that sunk in yet?
“No, it has not,” said Zack Steffen.
“I don’t know if it’ll sink in until maybe I’m back home with my family and friends, or maybe next season, or in a couple seasons,” Steffen said in an interview ahead of the Concacaf Nations League’s final four, in which the U.S. faces archrival Mexico for the title Sunday night (9 p.m., CBS Sports Network, Univision, TUDN, Paramount+).
“But yeah, right now it’s just surreal,” he continued. “And obviously I’m very happy to be where I am, and very thankful and grateful.”
Steffen played 12 games for Manchester City in his first full season actually playing with the English club. City won all but one of those games as it romped to the Premier League and EFL Cup titles, and reached the semifinals of the FA Cup and the final of the Champions League. (That FA Cup semifinal, a 1-0 loss to Chelsea, was the lone defeat.)
When City signed Steffen from the Columbus Crew in the summer of 2019, it loaned him to German club Fortuna Düsseldorf so he could play a lot. The decision to keep him in Manchester this season as the No. 2 goalkeeper raised eyebrows.
But manager Pep Guardiola knew he’d need a deep squad to play 61 games across four competitions this season, from the Premier League opener on Sept. 21 to the Champions League final on May 29. No goalkeeper, not even City’s superb No. 1, Ederson, could play them all.
Oh, and throw in pandemic-enforced lockdowns in England for good measure.
“Mentally it was a little draining at times, during the Christmas period when my family couldn’t come over and I was living on my own for a couple months” Steffen said. “But the camaraderie and the brotherhood of the guys and the culture of the team is really strong. … It was a season of growth for me on and off the field.”
That camaraderie was forged in a star-studded training environment managed by Guardiola, one of the game’s preeminent coaches.
“Pep’s very passionate, he’s very demanding — he just loves the game of football, he loves his players,” Steffen said. “He’s a perfectionist, he’s obviously one of the best coaches of all time, and it’s been a pleasure to be by him every day and see what he’s like.”
‘Our goal is to lift a World Cup’
For some people in the soccer world, the club game in Europe has become the pinnacle of the sport, especially if you’re with a colossus like Manchester City. For Americans, though, the pinnacle is still the U.S. national team.
“Our goal is to lift a World Cup trophy,” Steffen said. “If that’s not your goal, to do the greatest thing in your area of expertise [or] career, I believe, then why are you doing it? So yeah, for this group, it’s winning the World Cup.”
His words were just as blunt as what you’d hear from Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, and Abby Dahlkemper, U.S. women’s stars who’ve played for Manchester City’s women’s team during Steffen’s time with the men’s squad.
But no one needs reminding that the trophy cases are unequal — especially anyone still scarred by the U.S. men’s team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. This week, Steffen can help the program take a big step toward healing.
Steffen is the Americans’ No. 1 goalkeeper, playing on arguably the most talented U.S. men’s team ever assembled. His colleagues hail from some of the biggest clubs in England, Germany, Spain, England, and other major European nations.
Thursday’s 1-0 semifinal win over Honduras was the first time in years that many of them had played on U.S. soil. Steffen, who captained the Americans and made three saves, hadn’t played a home game for his country since Sept, 7, 2019.
Winger Gio Reyna (son of U.S. legend Claudio Reyna), midfielder Yunus Musah, and game-winning striker Jordan Siebatcheu never had. (Nor had No. 3 goalkeeper David Ochoa, though he plays in MLS for Real Salt Lake.)
These games have real stakes, too. The Honduras game was the first major contest for the Americans since the 2019 Gold Cup. Sunday’s final against archrival Mexico will be the last one before World Cup qualifying starts in September.
There were 34,451 fans at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High, home of the NFL’s Broncos, for Thursday’s semifinal doubleheader. (Ticket sales were capped before the city loosened its pandemic restrictions this week.) Mexico won the second semifinal over Costa Rica in a penalty kick shootout after being held to a scoreless tie in regulation.
As he looked ahead to playing in front of a big crowd, Steffen said, “It’s going to be an awesome feeling, and I’m hoping it’s going to be a great night.” He jokingly added that he hoped they wouldn’t all root for Mexico, though he knew most of them would. (As is always the case when El Tri plays in NFL stadiums.)
“We get the opportunity to play some competitive games and have the opportunity to lift our first trophy together,” he said. “We’re very excited, we’re very motivated, and we’re pretty close-knit right now.”
Time to bury the past
As with many of the big-time players on this U.S. squad, Steffen didn’t make his national team debut until after that infamous loss at Trinidad & Tobago four years ago, on the final night of the qualifying campaign. But he has heard the stories, and certainly heard the uproar.
“That’s all the talk from the fans and the reporters and all that stuff — what we’re talking about is just wanting to change the way the world views American soccer,” Steffen said. “We’re very young, and we’re still trying to learn the game and learn each other and learn ourselves, so it’s a lot to take in. But that’s the beauty of the sport, and we’re very determined to lift trophies, to win as many games as possible, and become the best team that we can.”
There’s another piece to the puzzle that excites Steffen: having three teammates on this squad who hail from the greater Philadelphia area. Medford’s Brenden Aaronson might have the fastest-rising stock of any current U.S big-timer. Mark McKenzie, from Bear, Del., played well in a tuneup game against Switzerland last Sunday. Hershey’s Christian Pulisic, the star of stars, just won the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea.
Coincidentally, they all spent time in the Union’s youth academy before achieving greater fame. Steffen still remembers playing for an under-17 team coached by Jim Curtin that won the 2012 Generation Adidas Cup. The title game went to a penalty kick shootout, and Steffen made saves in the first and last rounds.
All four local products could play in this fall’s UEFA Champions League. Steffen and Pulisic definitely will; McKenzie (Genk, Belgium) and Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg, Austria) will enter in the third and last qualifying playoff rounds, respectively.
If all four men make next year’s World Cup team, as they are projected to do, it would set a record for the most local players ever in one tournament. It would also cement this region as one of the nation’s top producers of soccer talent. Steffen knows how big that would be in a place where the traditional American sports have ruled for decades.
“Honestly, I never could have thought of that,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy, it’s pretty awesome.”