FAIRFAX, Va. — When American soccer players head abroad to try to prove themselves on global soccer's big stages, the rest of us often think only about matters on the field, not the rest of the player's life.
Four years ago, Coatesville native Zack Steffen made his first move to Europe, while a sophomore goalie at the University of Maryland. It didn’t work out for reasons that went beyond soccer, and 18 months after he left, he came back to America.
This summer, he left again. The expectations were even bigger, as the Columbus Crew sold him to English club Manchester City for a transfer fee that could reach $10 million. So was the uncertainty, as City soon loaned him to German club Fortuna Düsseldorf.
But this time, Steffen has jumped right in, playing every minute of the season for Düsseldorf so far. He hasn’t won much (which isn’t just his fault, of course), but he saved a penalty kick in one game and has earned praise from plenty of observers.
“It’s been a little bit of a transition, but it’s been good,” he said Thursday, as he trained with the U.S. men’s soccer team ahead of its Concacaf Nations League debut Friday night vs. Cuba (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1, UniMás and TUDN).
“I feel like I’ve been playing pretty well, but the team hasn’t been playing so well,” he continued. “So it’s a little bit of frustration as an entirety, but for my game, I’m happy where I’m at but I obviously want to keep a couple of balls out of the net.”
The good times have come when Steffen has been able to appreciate the skill on the field and atmosphere in the stands across the Bundesliga. Germany’s top league routinely produces one of Europe’s highest goals-per-game averages, and some of the continent’s most electric crowds.
“A lot more shots on target, a lot more goals. It’s faster and a lot more clinical,” he said. “The fans are really, really cool. Very, very passionate — very loud, always singing and chanting the whole game. The stadiums are beautiful, and it’s really been a great time so far.”
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who coached Steffen in Columbus, has been thrilled by the player’s success.
“It’s nice to see the guys take these steps, and watch them take these steps from afar,” Berhalter said. “You see how he gains confidence, you see how he starts performing better and better each game, and that’s been really fun to watch. He’s done a great job with his team. You can tell he’s already established himself as a leader in that group, and a top performer in his position in the Bundesliga.”
Life off the field has gone well, too. Steffen’s sister Katy, a former soccer player at Penn State-Brandywine, is spending the year with him in Düsseldorf. Fortuna has helped with finding an apartment and transportations.
“I think it goes a long way for myself being comfortable enough to be able to go out and play my game,” Zack Steffen said. “It’s a great city, a lot to do, a lot of good food, a lot of nice people, everybody speaks English there. … It’s great to have someone familiar with me, and she and I have a good relationship, so I don’t get lonely, she doesn’t get lonely.”
Steffen still keeps track of things back home, though, including Philadelphia’s sports teams. The Phillies are a bit hard to follow from overseas, but he’s kept enough track to be “not so surprised” that Gabe Kapler was fired. And he’s very much a 76ers fan, and they’re easier to keep up with thanks to their worldwide popularity.
So how about that Ben Simmons three-pointer?
“It’s preseason, but hopefully that gives him confidence to keep going,” Steffen said.
He knows well how far that trait — and plenty of hard work — can take an athlete on the global stage.